Seven steps to community solar

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Nationwide, over 220 utilities offer community solar programs across 36 states, and a growing number of rural electric cooperatives, municipal utilities, and investor owned utilities are exploring or implementing community solar program offerings. Currently there is only around 1 GW of community solar installed, but some see a path toward 84 GW by 2030.

To assist in reaching this ambitious goal, Vote Solar and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) have released their Checklist for Voluntary Utility-Led Community Solar Programs. The document divides its advice into seven sections:

  1. Expand consumer access to clean energy – make sure to be explicit in the program goals, be conscious of your customer sizing needs, understand your customers economic needs, make sure you communicate the program well – and make it easy to get into.
  2. ‘Offer tangible economic benefits’ – make near and long term financial benefits real enough to be noticed on bills, eliminate upfront costs, have a backup electricity buyer.
  3. Develop the project at a respectable price.
  4. Prioritize customer experience – site the solar locally, have clean clear documents, streamlined customer management.
  5. Promote competition.
  6. Optimize the projects to benefit the grid – strategic siting, pairing with other technology, consider resiliency, use smart sites – local brownfields, schools, farmers.
  7. Complement existing programs.

Community solar projects have unique variables in their development; mainly in that you have to figure out how to bring together many many buyers, and these buyers tend to have a broad range of motivations. Some simply want to save a little cash, while environmentalists, renters, and those whose homes just don’t work for solar fill out the much of the rest.

As well, there are many models. California Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) groups seem to be leading the charge – but are really closer to repackaged generation companies who have got specific clean energy goals. The Minnesota Community Solar program is lauded as the nation’s most successful, however only 10% of that volume is going to residential customers – so the state is evolving and giving an additional 1.5¢/kWh to try to motivate uptake. Whereas Massachusetts, the second largest community solar program in the nation, limits 50% of their solar systems to system sizes smaller than 25 MW.

There is much growth expected with Illinois just getting warmed up, Maryland moving, and New York figuring out the math.