New US Solar Power Scheme Aims At Invisible Middle

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A vast middle ground of opportunity for solar power development is ripe for the picking if only somebody could see where it is. Well, the US Department of Energy sees it, and is determined to pick it. The agency is moving forward with a plan to kickstart activity in the area of mid-sized arrays ranging from 50 kilowatts to 3 megawatts. That may sound like peanuts, but it includes the important community solar sector, so — wait, what is community solar anyways?

solar power community commercial
A US solar power initiative aims to break down barriers to commercial scale and rural solar development (image via National Community Solar Partnership).

The Invisible Middle Of Solar Power

Sprawling utility scale solar arrays of 100 megawatts and more are old hat, and just about everybody and their uncle has a rooftop solar array on their house, which weighs in at 6 kilowatts on average (thanks, EnergySage!).

Far less common than those two extremes, the invisible solar power fruit is dangling smack in the middle between utility and residential scale. This relatively untapped reservoir of opportunity for solar development falls into something called “commercial scale.”

Don’t be fooled by the word “commercial.” Commercial is a solar industry term referring to the size of solar arrays and panels. You don’t have to be a business to get a commercial scale solar array, and that’s where the community solar angle comes in.

Solar Power For Everyone

The basic idea behind community solar is that multiple rate payers in a particular geographic area benefit from access to a solar project in the same general area, either directly or in the form of a purchasing program.

For the Energy Department it all boils down to expanding solar power access to lots of people who can’t get their hands on actual rooftop solar panels, including renters and tenants.

In fact, last February the Energy Department reaffirmed its goal of ensuring access to solar power for every US household by 2025, and community solar will play a big role in achieving that goal.

I know, right? Inclusive!

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that almost half of US households and businesses can’t put solar panels on their roofs, which is a lot of lost opportunity.

“Community solar allows renters, tenants, and residents to access solar energy regardless of where they live or the suitability of their rooftop. This allows more people to offset monthly energy bills while increasing their community’s resiliency, enhancing workforce opportunities, and spurring economic development,” the Energy Department explains.

Non-profits and government agencies could also benefit from community solar, since they don’t qualify for solar tax credits on their own.

A Super Interesting Solar Power Partnership

Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch, and until recently one big obstacle was cost. Solar power used to be relatively expensive, so community solar programs had to pitch themselves on a voluntary, opt-in basis.

Now that costs have come down, one of the remaining challenges is how to accelerate adoption of community solar.

In that regard, the Energy Department has several irons in the fire. One of them is a community solar project under the umbrella of something called the Solar Energy Innovation Network.

The Energy Innovation Network is a partnership between NREL, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

For those of you unfamiliar with RMI, that’s the stakeholder powerhouse behind high-impact programs like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance and the building electrification movement.

“Part of what makes [the Energy Innovation Network] so unique is the unparalleled access to the expertise the three partner organizations provide,” NREL enthuses. “NREL and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab provide world-class modeling and analysis to the teams, and the Rocky Mountain Institute brings a well-practiced expertise in convening and coordinating stakeholders.”

Interesting! If you’re wondering whatever happened to all those beautiful coal jobs that the current occupant of 1600 Avenue promised to save, just take a look at what the Energy Department has been doing under his nose.

Full Steam Ahead For Energy Innovation Network

As for those teams, in February NREL launched a portfolio of eight never-been-tried solar power projects, including a community solar project. They are still going full steam ahead even during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Now, work is well under way, with common themes including solar-plus-storage, community solar, the resilience benefits of solar, and quantifying the value of solar in distributed systems,” NREL reminded everybody in a press release last week.

The remaining 15-month timeline includes stress-testing solutions in advance of a final blueprint-sharing symposium, so CleanTechnica will keep an eyeball on that.

Meanwhile, for those of you keeping score at home four of the projects address roadblocks to rural solar power under the titles, Community-Informed Proactive Solar Siting and Financing in Massachusetts, Organizational Innovation for Equitable Solar Deployment with Electric Cooperatives, “Solar-Plus” for Electric Cooperatives: Guidance and Documents for High-Value Procurement and Operations, and Evaluating the Use of Energy Storage to Manage Solar Interconnection Costs in Rural Rhode Island.

The other four zero in on the commercial-scale solar power area with Overcoming Barriers to Community Shared Solar Plus Storage, Creating an Innovative Urban Energy Resiliency Hub, Quantifying the Resilience Value of Solar Plus Storage in Reno, and Clear Sky Tampa Bay: A Regional Framework for Enhancing Resilience through Solar Plus Storage.

Stay tuned for more!

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Image (cropped): via National Community Solar Partnership.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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