US Department of Energy Expands Support For Community Solar

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced new solar energy investments aimed at reducing electricity bills and local pollution while supporting President Biden’s ambitious goals of a 100% clean electricity grid by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Through the National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP), 25 teams have been selected to participate in the $10 million Community Power Accelerator Prize competition, which will establish a nationwide network of community solar developers.

This initiative has the potential to produce 150 megawatts of community solar energy — enough to power almost 30,000 homes — and access $5 billion in private sector financing through the Community Power Accelerator.

Additionally, the DOE has also launched the 2023 Sunny Awards, which offers $200,000 in prize awards for community solar projects that prioritize equitable access and ensure benefits such as household savings, job creation, and enhanced energy resilience go to subscribers and their communities. These initiatives support the President’s Justice40 initiative, which ensures every community benefits from the clean energy transition and underscores the Administration’s commitment to expand affordable renewable energy access across the country.

“Ensuring every community has access to the benefits from affordable clean energy resources like solar is key to President Biden’s vision of an equitable clean energy future,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “With today’s announcements, DOE is providing an exciting new set of tools and important assistance to support solar deployment across the nation so that all communities can enjoy the economic and critical public health benefits that come with deploying renewable energy.”

Secretary Granholm emphasized the significance of these developments during an event acknowledging the 2022 Sunny Awards recipients in Washington, D.C. She also highlighted additional investments made by the DOE, such as $82 million in research and development projects to further solar energy and a $3 billion conditional loan commitment to facilitate Sunnova Energy Corporation’s Project Hestia. The latter is a venture aimed at providing access to solar energy to underprivileged communities.

For those unfamiliar, community solar is an innovative method of generating solar energy that affords all community members access to the substantial savings and health advantages of clean, renewable energy. These advantages include lower utility bills, increased energy resilience, equitable workforce development, and accessibility to low- and moderate-income households. DOE initiatives, such as NCSP, the Community Power Accelerator™, and the Sunny Awards, are designed to bolster the Department’s efforts to support organizations and communities nationwide in acquiring the funding and resources they need to develop community solar projects that produce lasting and significant benefits for their local areas.

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The Community Solar Acceleration Prize

The Community Power Accelerator Prize, an integral part of the Community Power Accelerator network, was created to better equip community solar developers. By fostering a supportive environment that encourages learning and expansion, this initiative encourages developers to incorporate benefits specific to their respective communities in solar projects throughout the country. This prize serves as a critical element of the network, which is comprised of developers, investors, philanthropists, and community-based organizations that collaborate to ensure that equitable community solar projects have adequate financing and are successfully launched.

The lenders involved in the network are committed to supporting community-based organizations and other mission-aligned project developers in accessing funding and constructing community solar projects, especially in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

The 25 selected winners of the Community Power Accelerator Prize are set to receive a cash prize of $50,000 each, avail of technical support, and participate in a learning lab aimed at expanding their project portfolios and preparing them for financing. In the succeeding phase of the competition, the teams will feature their projects on the Community Power Accelerator’s online platform. This will raise their visibility among the platform’s financing and philanthropic partners, honing skills required to help deploy hundreds of megawatts of accessible community solar. This will benefit the NCSP in achieving its goal of generating 20 gigawatts by 2025. The winners hail from diverse communities and represent 16 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Rewarding Best Practices, Too

The DOE has kicked off the submissions phase for its 2023 American-Made Sunny Awards for Equitable Community Solar. Now on its second year, the Sunny Awards aim to acknowledge community solar projects, state, municipal, Tribal, and utility-led community solar programs that employ best practices in providing advantages to their subscribers and communities. Applicants will compete for a prize pool of $200,000, which includes up to five Grand Prize Awards amounting to $10,000 each.

To elaborate further, the Sunny Awards is a contest designed to acknowledge community solar projects and programs that employ innovative techniques to promote greater access to the cost-saving and public health benefits of community solar. The primary objective of this initiative is to expand equitable access to the environmental and economic benefits of community solar.

Why This Matters

Community solar plays a crucial and increasing role in the country’s transition to renewable energy. Traditionally, installing solar panels required an individual or business to own or lease a property where solar panels would be installed. This approach was not feasible for many individuals or businesses who faced ownership or financing obstacles. Community solar provides an alternative to this and paves the way for all community members to leverage the cost-saving and health benefits of solar energy.

By allowing multiple community members to subscribe to a shared project, community solar generates electricity while reducing the aggregate energy bills for everyone involved. This approach also affords low- and moderate-income households, which may lack the financial resources to install a solar array of their own, access to the benefits of clean energy.

Moreover, community solar provides communities an opportunity to collectively invest in energy resilience, which helps protect against blackouts due to grid disruptions or weather events. Additionally, it can offer opportunities for workforce and economic development within local communities.

Community solar is an innovative solution that presents substantial benefits to communities, including lower energy bills, increased energy resilience, equitable access to clean energy benefits, and job creation, among others. It forms a key part of the nationwide push towards a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Any program that helps expand it helps push all of these goals forward.

Featured image by U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), public domain.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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