When nonprofit organizations want the benefits of solar power, people in the community often want to help. But instead of asking for money and promising to use the donation to install solar panels, churches, cultural institutions, schools and other organizations are looking at everything from net metering accounts to solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) to help them achieve solar goals, and to help people get tax write-offs.
There has been a great deal of interest in solar from investors and other for-profit entities, but that hasn't always translated to other entities adopting renewable energy, says Eric Broadbent, green community coordinator for the Harvard Energy Advisory Committee in the town of Harvard, Mass., approximately 25 miles northwest of Boston. That's why the concept of donating solar power is gaining traction.
The committee worked to help the town qualify for the Solarize Mass campaign, a volume-buying program for solar PV. While many in town were able to install panels on-site, a large group of residents was unable to, and the idea for community solar was born.
The Harvard Solar Garden is scheduled for completion in 2014. Participants can purchase shares and enjoy a rebate on their utility bills, or they can donate the net metering credit to their church. Churches tend to use a large amount of electricity, Broadbent says, but congregations don't want to see solar panels on the roofs.
‘You cannot put solar panels on a historic New England church with a steeple,’ he says. ‘Nor should you want to.’
As part of Massachusetts' renewable portfolio standard, the state provides grants to towns to increase energy efficiency and adopt renewable energy. Recently, the committee learned the state clearinghouse for grants will allow the electricity from the solar garden to be net-metered to a nonprofit off-taker, such as a church, and a community solar share owner can donate that credit as a tax-deductible donation.
‘We had to get clearance from the state that the owner of the system doesn't have to be at the address that the electricity is credited to,’ Broadbent says. ‘We can say the account that will receive the net meter electricity credit will be someone else except the owner, and that's fine with the state.’
Broadbent says Harvard Solar Garden will offer SRECs to participants, who can keep them for up to 10 years. The committee considered offering an option to donate the SREC, but so far it is going to stick with the net metering donation only. The committee also will likely speak with an interfaith organization that helps churches raise money for their own renewable energy projects – there are several variations of these entities in several states – but for now, the community solar project will use its current funding model.
‘At this point, what we have is a scheme that we believe works,’ he says. ‘People are saying, 'We have been waiting for this idea; it makes all the sense in the world.'’
It is too early to tell how many churches in Massachusetts will benefit from the net metering donations, but the concept has caught on with other solar projects. In Ashland, Ore., participants in the community solar project Solar Pioneer II can opt to donate their net metering credit. Adam Hanks, management analyst for the City of Ashland, says of the 90 participants in Solar Pioneer II, two people have donated their annual kWh credit to churches, and one to the local YMCA. Another donated to another household, likely a relative.
‘The procedure is the same as setting up the direct credit,’ Hanks says. ‘Our paperwork just requires that a valid, active account number be listed on the contract.’
According to NREL's Guide to Community Solar, there is a nonprofit variation of community solar, in which donors lower the energy costs for their favorite charities. The nonprofit, which must obtain tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, can partner with a third party for-profit that can earn the tax benefits, and donors can make tax-deductible contributions. This model has been used in schools, affordable housing, and other entities.
In July, GDF SUEZ Energy Resources NA, a retail electricity supplier for commercial, industrial and institutional customers, announced it will donate renewable energy credits (RECs) to the New England Aquarium. The gift will match 100% of the aquarium's estimated annual electricity usage. In August, the company followed up a program of REC donations for the the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) to match 100% of electricity consumption at the 2013 U.S. Open.
The idea of gifting energy credits is about to hit the big time. The Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), the parent company of New Jersey-based utility Public Service Gas and Electric Co. (PSE&G), is purchasing RECs to help offset the power-intensive Super Bowl XLVIII. For every MWh of electricity used at MetLife Stadium, the team hotels and Super Bowl Boulevard – a public event associated with the Super Bowl – located in Times Square in New York City, PSEG says it will purchase and retire one REC.
According to PSEG, its REC purchase will include New Jersey SRECs equal to a four-week output of PSE&G's 3 MW Kearny Solar Farm. The remaining RECs have been purchased from Community Energy Inc., sourced from the Jersey-Atlantic City Wind Farm.
While professional sporting events can hardly be described as not-for-profit, the actions of GDF SUEZ and PSEG illustrate that solar donation as a concept works at all levels. It also shows that operations from quaint New England churches to uproarious stadiums can go 100% solar without being covered in solar panels.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.