Community Solar Year 1 — A New Program Gets Underway

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Community solar is the idea that folks who can’t install solar panels on their rooftops — either because their roof isn’t in good shape or they don’t have the upfront capital or they rent and don’t own their home — can essentially buy solar panels at a solar farm (usually off in a field somewhere relatively nearby), receive credit off their utility bills, and take part in growing their solar energy locally. This idea has been hopscotching from state to state, helping to grow the industry by doubling in size every year as well as opening access to the benefits of solar energy to many more people.

Image courtesy of Common Energy

In my state of Oregon, legislators passed a law in 2016 to get the process started, and it took 4 long years to design the program. It was finally launched in the beginning of 2020 and is just about to celebrate its first birthday. I just signed my family up (it was incredibly easy to do, FYI) and afterwards wanted to talk to some of the people responsible for the program in Oregon to see how it works and how it’s going. I interviewed Ryan Cook at the Energy Trust of Oregon and Tamara Perry of Energy Solutions, who are third-party program administrators hired by the state to operate the program.

How is community solar going after its first year here in Oregon?

Well, we’ve allocated 57 megawatts to 30 projects that have been proposed by a range of different project developers, community groups, and other organizations, which we’re pretty excited about. Of those 30 projects, 12 projects representing 22 megawatts are signing up subscribers right now and will be gearing up towards operation.

(Author’s note: 1 megawatt of solar powers about 130 homes in Oregon. Thus, 22 megawatts of solar would power about 2,860 homes. To put this in context, Oregon currently has 915 MW of solar power installed, according to SEIA, so this very first group of community solar projects will grow the state’s solar resources by about 2.5%.)

Projects like these will soon be installing thousands of solar panels across Oregon. Photo courtesy of Oregon Shines.

We’re expecting the first project will become operational shortly after the new year. This first group of solar installations should all come online in the first half of next year and we’re really excited about that. We’re happy to have operational projects to begin showing the world.

What makes Oregon’s community solar program unique?

Well, we really have three programs rolled into one. We have:

    1. A general market program (where people and businesses can sign up for community solar like the author did for his family), 
    2. 10% that each project needs to reserve for low income customers (we will talk about this unique program in an upcoming post
    3. 25% of the program for community led and small projects (see more details below.)  

Each of these elements presents a unique set of opportunities and also challenges.  

When designing this community solar program, there was a commitment to preserve not only the low income part in which every project needs to serve low income customers, but also the community based project part of the program, which is unique about what we have in Oregon. By reserving the carveout for community-based projects, we create room for interesting projects that are going to look and feel different than the general market ones (which are still the bulk of the program), but we allow ourselves to have this diversity as well. This stands apart from other state’s programs.

Tell us about some of the interesting community based projects

There are a few different interesting community-based projects out there — one is rooftop development with an affordable housing organization Rose CDC that the residents of the building can participate in. The other one that has been pre-certified is a project down in Talent, Oregon, which had wildfires last month. This is for local residents who haven’t been able to put panels on their roof. They worked together to create an ownership model where they’re going to co-own the system and it’s going to be sited on an Oregon Shakespeare festival warehouse in Talent. These 15 or so households will each own a share and will have some shares that are sold to local subscribers as well.

How is the process for attracting customers going in general?

For the general market program, the projects have still been able to meet their normal recruiting deadlines. I think that COVID has changed the way they sign people up. I think everyone was envisioning this being a more in-person year, but project managers have adapted to that. Where the challenge has been felt a bit more has been on the low-income side (we’ll talk about that in a future post).

Where would you like to see the community solar program at the end of next year, year 2?

Our first projects will happen right after this new year, so by the end of next year, we’d love to see this first cohort of projects all successfully come online.

We’d also love to see the second group of projects come together. We’d love to see a pretty wide variety and high amounts of installed operational capacity. We’d love to see more community based projects and are working directly with communities to make that happen.

At some point there is going to be discussion about what the next phase of the program is going to look like and that’ll be a really interesting opportunity to open it back up to stakeholders.

So, there you have it. Oregon is about to grow its solar resources by 2.5% in this first year by creating an interesting and unique community solar program. I’ll profile the important low-income portion of this community solar program in a future post, as well as how community solar looks from a developer’s perspective. Check out our webinar we did on the topic of community solar for more details as well:

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Joe Wachunas

Joe lives in Portland, Oregon, and works to promote electric and decarbonized buildings. He believes that electrifying everything, from transportation to homes, is the quickest path to an equitable, clean energy future. Joe and his family live in an all-electric home and drive an EV.

Joe Wachunas has 67 posts and counting. See all posts by Joe Wachunas