Community solar is a relatively new option for consumers who want to participate in solar energy production but cannot install their own solar panels. The concept is comparable to a community garden, advocates say, in that people who don't have the resources for a garden on their own property can instead buy a share of a plot of land. In a community garden, participants get fruits and vegetables, and in a solar garden, utility customers receive a credit on their electric bills.
The concept sounds simple and appealing, but community solar professionals say there are some challenges, such as funding.
‘It's such an attractive program because the overwhelming majority of people cannot deploy renewable energy systems because most of them don't own their buildings,’ says Thomas Sweeney, chief operating officer for Clean Energy Collective (CEC) in Boulder, Colo. ‘When we talk about the residential market, approximately 15 to 20 percent of residential homes are appropriate for solar.’
Among CEC's most recent projects are the 400 kW Denver/Lowry Solar Array located on a former U.S. Air Force base that was redeveloped into a new urban community, and two 500 kW installations for Xcel Energy ratepayers in the resort town of Breckenridge, Colo. Participants purchase a specific solar panel that costs anywhere from $500 to $900, depending on the market. In return, customers get a credit on their electric bills.
Sweeney says the concept is different from crowdsourcing, in which investors pool their money to pay for a solar project in expectation of a return.
‘This is a case where we as developers pay to build a 500 kW array, then sell an interest to various customers, which are residential, commercial or government,’ he says. ‘Those customers purchasing that capacity in that array are benefiting in their utility bill.’
Sweeney says it helps that in 2010, the state legislature passed the Colorado Community Solar Gardens Act (HB10-1342). The legislation authorized the creation of community projects and encouraged utilities to establish community energy funds to develop these projects. Sweeney says the act was needed because the utility did not want to facilitate community solar on its own.
Other projects use different terms, but the concept is similar. In Ashland, Ore., the city runs its own municipal electric utility, which in 2007, built Solar Pioneer II, a 63 kW community solar system at the City of Ashland Service Center.
‘Basically, anyone can buy into the project, and what they are buying is the kWh output of however many panels they 'adopt,'’ says Adam Hanks, management analyst for the city. ‘The only hitch to the purchase is that they have to provide a City of Ashland electric utility account for the kWh output to be credited to.’
Hanks adds that most participants are homeowners who purchase a panel and have the credit on their own account, and some people purchase a panel and donate the kWh credit to a local charity or church that has a city electric utility account.
Solar Pioneer II was funded through City Electric Department funds and also through a purchase of the associated renewable energy credits by Avista Utilities and Bank of the Cascades. Ashland also used the Clean Renewable Energy Bond program, which is paid back in annual installments and embedded in user rates from the electric utility.
Another project is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District's (SMUD) SolarShares Program, which enXco (now EDF Renewable Energy) built in 2008. SMUD has a 20-year power purchase agreement to buy the power from local, community-scale PV systems and resells the solar power to participating customers, who get bill credits.
‘Community solar involves a new set of relationships between the solar provider, customer and local utility,’ says Stephen Frantz, project manager, retail solar program, for SMUD. He adds that Solar Shares is a work in progress. ‘We are hoping to expand in the next couple of years.’
Other projects include Tucson Electric Power's Bright Tucson Community Solar Program, in which customers can buy solar power in blocks of 150 kWh per month. The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative's Simple Solar Program offers customers the opportunity to lease a solar panel for $999 and receive monthly bill credits for 25 years.
The projects are sometimes referred to as group net metering, but net metering has received some negative publicity lately as utilities and others debate the value of power that consumers put back onto the grid. Still, advocates say community solar is a growing segment.
Sweeney says CEC is very optimistic about the future of community solar. ‘It taps into the entire marketplace,’ he says. ‘We have this wonderful market opportunity that I can sell to anyone with an electric bill.’
Several community solar projects are listed in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's 2012 publication, ‘A Guide to Community Shared Solar: Utility, Private, and Nonprofit Project Development,’ which can be found here.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.