A new community solar project is brewing in New York State, and if all goes according to plan it could spark yet more activity for US solar developers. Instead of forcing individual ratepayers to jump through hoops for solar power, the first-of-its-kind project will automatically pop discounted solar credits onto their utility bills. Anyone who is unhappy about receiving a break on their electricity costs can opt out. Just taking a wild guess, those people will be few and far between.
Wait, What Is Community Solar?
For those of you new to the topic, community solar is a subscription arrangement that enables consumers to lay claim to locally produced, solar-sourced electricity even if they don’t have their own rooftop solar array.
The unsuitable rooftop sector represents a huge untapped well for the solar industry. For various technical reasons — including financial roadblocks, too much shade, not enough roof, tax status issues, and tenant-owner relations — vast swaths of roof in the US are unavailable for installing solar panels. Nevertheless, the people who pay the electricity bills on those buildings may be happy to subscribe to a community solar program and get their solar power on paper.
So, why doesn’t everyone have access to a community solar program right now? Good question!
In past years, cost was a major obstacle. Community solar programs typically involved paying a premium, back when the cost of solar power was relatively high. Even with accommodations for low income rate payers, that was a big turnoff.
Solar costs have gone down, but now the big problem is inertia. Community solar is typically offered on an opt-in basis, requiring supporters to convince every individual ratepayer to go through the opt-in process.
That process can be an onerous one that discourages participation. In New York, for example, community solar participants have to consent to a credit check, sign a contract, and pay a separate bill for their solar credits.
Energy Department Gets With Community Solar Program
Despite all that, now that solar is competitive in more markets, interest in community solar has the potential to grow rapidly. In fact, every US household could have access to affordable solar power through a community solar plan by 2025.
Yes, that’s 2025. The Department of Energy launched a new community PV initiative last fall to that effect, so don’t just take our word for it.
As for financial roadblocks, one key area of focus in the DOE community solar effort involves shared solar and other strategies that make solar affordable for low and middle income households, including those living in multifamily subsidized housing.
New York State Nails First-Of-Its-Kind Opt-Out Community Solar Plan
If all this is beginning to sound a bit like community choice aggregation, that’s also in play. CCA enables groups of consumers to band together and negotiate with their utility companies for more renewable energy, typically through their local government.
CCA is another one of those things that was a tough sell when solar costs were high, but now ratepayers stand to save by motivating more renewables into the grid.
However, the CCA framework requires legislative approval, and so far only a handful of state legislative bodies have approved it. In addition, CCA programs struggle with issues similar to community solar because they are typically done on an opt-in basis.
Into this picture steps the firm Joule Community Power. Last week the company announced that it has won approval from the New York State Department of Public Service to launch an opt-out — that’s the key difference — community solar plan on a pilot basis for two upstate towns, Brockport and Lima, totaling 3,000 households.
As described by Joule, this is the first community solar program in the US that will automatically put solar credits on a ratepayer’s bill, to the tune of a guaranteed 10% discount.
To ice the cake, all of the paperwork goes to the utility National Grid. Individual ratepayers do not need to sign a contract, pay a separate bill, or deal with any other administrative tasks.
Though it’s possible that some ratepayers will opt out after they see a 10% discount on their solar credit, it’s not likely that they will do so in significant numbers.
Want Low Cost Solar Power? Vote For It!
If you caught that thing about CCA only being available in some states, that represents an obstacle to expanding opt-out community solar across the US. However, success for the Joule pilot program may help advocates in the solar industry push for more widespread adoption.
New York happens to be a CCA state, and Joule already administers a CCA program in the region. That factors into its ability to offer the discounted solar credits.
“When used in conjunction with CCA supply programs, residents can augment their electricity bill savings and combat climate change on multiple fronts, thereby maximizing impact of their participation and their electricity bill savings,” explains Joule.
New York State’s solar incentive program also contributes to the discount.
You won’t be alone. Advocates in the solar industry are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the New York pilot project.
“While benefiting communities and residents, opt-out community solar also provides significant benefits to solar project developers. By making agreements with municipalities, developers can gain enrollment certainty and acquire customers at scale,” explains Joule.
Solar Power Rising On Tide Of Green COVID-19 Recovery
While the opt-out model is taking shape in New York, some other interesting developments have been bubbling up to the surface in the area of affordable solar.
One especially interesting example is taking shape in Virginia, aimed specifically at bringing low cost solar to businesses, nonprofits, and local governments.
That’s especially interesting because the state passed CCA legislation all the way back in 1999 but no plans were ever approved, possibly because the legislation only provided for opt-in subscription.
That may be so, but more solar power is coming to the state anyways. Earlier this month the firm Secure Futures announced a partnership with the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, under a coal-to-renewables green job initiative for seven counties in the region called “Securing Solar For Southwest Virginia.
They already have a head start, as the region includes several communities that have been recognized by the Energy Department’s SolSmart program for local solar development.
Interesting! The new partnership will take the SolSmart effort “to the next level,” as described by Secure Futures.
“The partners are working to achieve significant goals over the next three years, including the construction of 10 megawatts of solar in the coalfield region by the end of 2023, and the creation of 15 new, full-time jobs in solar construction, sales and marketing, entrepreneurship and small business development,” the company explains.
The partnership includes a grant to Mountain Empire Community College for solar job training and an employment pipeline.
For those of you keeping score at home, the 7 counties involved in the effort are known as the state’s “coalfield counties”: Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise.
The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, and the community organization People Incorporated are also on board with the plan.
Own a building in the area? Interested in affordable solar power? Want a green job? Join a webinar on September 30. More info at swvasolar.org/securing-solar.
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Image: Via US DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office.