Community solar has been an exciting area of potential growth for the solar industry, and is often one of the few types of solar that both utilities and their customers can agree upon. However, while the potential market is big, getting individual state markets off the ground can be painfully slow.
A good example is Minnesota, currently the largest community solar market in the United States. The state passed enabling legislation in 2013, but it took three years for the state to install its first full megawatt of community solar.
Perhaps nowhere is the gap between promise and reality as great as in New York. According to GTM Research, the state has a pipeline of 1.8 gigawatts of community solar projects, but only 1.2 MW online.
That may be set to change. In late June the Town Board in Grand Island, New York approved a special use permit for a 4.4 MW-DC community solar project, which is 10x as large as the biggest community solar plant to come online to date.
Developer BlueRock Energy says that funding is in process for the plant and that its partner Acitve Solar will “probably” begin construction on the project’s two adjacent sites this fall, after interconnection is approved by National Grid. BlueRock notes that this is the greatest unknown in the project’s timeline.
A lack of clarity around interconnection timelines does not appear to be unusual, and advocates also told pv magazine that delays in the interconnection process were one of the main factors that hampered Minnesota’s solar community solar for the first few years.
GTM Research says that New York’s interconnection process is a big factor in the disparity between the state’s huge pipeline and limited capacity online, but for different reasons. “The main issue is that the interconnection queue has filled up with projects because 1) interconnection application fees are extremely low, 2) the state is reforming net metering rules, so developers are attempting to get projects approved under the grandfathered net metering tariffs, and 3) since developers bear the cost of any interconnection upgrades, developers have been trying to hedge their bets by getting good positions in the queue,” GTM Research Senior Analyst Michelle Davis told pv magazine.
However, this is not the first plant that BlueRock has developed. The company partnered with Renovus Energy to build a 642 kW community solar project in Millport, which came online last month and represents roughly half of the operational community solar capacity in the state. Additionally, the partnership currently has another 2.3 MW community solar project in Enfield under construction, which they expect to commission later this year.
For all three projects, BlueRock is handling subscriptions, while its partners are responsible for the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) work. BlueRock uses a “pay-as-you-go” system, whereby it subscribes customers under zero-down contracts, as opposed to models of community solar where subscribers own parts of the project.
“The potential is definitely there and we are blazing new ground in the pay-as-you-go subscription model,” BlueRock Solar General Manager Michael Francis told pv magazine. “We are the first ones doing it in the state.”
“It’s challenging but it is a lot of fun, and ultimately I think it is going to sell really well.”