sunResidential solar installations are fairly expensive propositions, making it more difficult for people to participate in this renewable energy resource. But now, a relatively new concept—community solar—is seeing the light of day. Despite some financial, legal and technology barriers, a handful of utilities in cities like St. George, UT, and Seattle, WA, have come together for community solar, paving the way for more to follow. Private industry is also stepping in, helping the market to heat up more quickly.

by Debbie Van Der Hyde, Green Economy Post

What is community solar?
Northwest Community Energy defines community solar as a ‘solar-electric system that, through a voluntary program, provides power and/or financial benefit to, or is owned by, multiple community members.’ The concept is similar to that of a community garden, or p-patch, where a plot of city land is available for gardeners who do not have appropriate space in their own residences, perhaps because they are apartment dwellers.

As a renewable energy resource, solar is the most accessible option. “However, in many cities, less than 50 percent of homes are suitable for solar power,” says Linda Irvine of NW Sustainable Energy for Economic Development. “The residences are either in the shade too much of the time or not occupied by owners,” Irvine says.

Community solar allows people to invest what they are able to afford in a photovoltaic (PV) installation that is installed on a publically-owned location. This could be a government building, municipal library or public educational facility.

Irvine adds that there are two “flavors” of community solar. The first option, which is already happening in some regions, is when a utility erects a solar installation on behalf of customers, who can voluntarily participate in the program. (Follow this link for a case study of Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) SolarShares program).

The second still hypothetical option is when a group of interested people form a company or LLC and find a willing host with a solar-friendly building or property. The LLC would come up with the capital to purchase and install PV panels, and install net metering to offset electricity bills for the building or host. Individuals participating in the LLC would potentially receive a share of production credits proportional to their share of ownership of the panels.

Removing the blocks to community solar
More and more utilities and policy makers are warming up to the idea of community solar, thanks to a few trailblazers like SMUD and others. Currently, utilities are being challenged to transition from the traditional one-way role of selling electricity to the consumer to the two-way (or sometimes multi-directional) role of also buying electricity from the consumer. In the case of solar, this requires the utility to offer residential net metering for private solar installations. Many utilities are still figuring out how to credit customers for the energy they produce.

One working model for community solar comes from Utah’s SunSmart program. The program is a collaboration of the City of St. George Energy Services Department and Dixie Escalante Electric. According to a release, the utilities are planning to install up to 20 PV projects at 100 kW each. St. George Energy and Dixie provided the capital for the initial installation and sold shares to city residents to fund the next installation. Participating customers qualified for the state’s renewable energy systems tax credit and also receive monthly kilowatt-hour credits on their utility bills based on the amount of energy produced by the system.

New policy incentives shine through
NW SEED states there is no one-size-fits-all business model for community solar across the nation. The financial incentives vary considerably by state, as well as the appropriate legal structure and technology decisions for the community. “It depends on the community resources and requirements,” Irvine says.

Washington State is one of the most progressive in this area with its new community solar law. In 2009, the state passed the Washington State Department of Revenue’s Renewable Energy Production Incentive Program, which provides incentives on a per kilowatt basis for investors to install solar-electric systems on public buildings and private homes. The incentives increase if the components of the system are made in Washington. (For a full listing of solar incentives by state, see the Database for State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency web site.)

In sync with these recent developments, Seattle, one of 25 cities across the nation to be named as a Solar America City, is moving ahead with a community solar program to ‘increase residential, commercial, city-owned and community-scale solar energy use.’

According to a Seattle City Light proposal to the Department of Energy describing the program, ‘Seattle will sell shares of a larger solar electric installation to participants who might otherwise not have access to solar and who will benefit from a well-sited, professionally maintained system.

The report states that: ‘Seattle City Light believes it can create a program that addresses legal, technical and logistical hurdles in a format that is easy for other cities to implement. The utility plans to share its experiences in developing the program with all Solar America Cities and other communities interested in developing similar programs.’

Private industry makes a move
In the meantime, private industry is stepping in and partnering with public institutions on community solar installations. One such company is Silicon Energy in Arlington, Washington. Silicon Energy has partnered with Shoreline Community College to install what is expected to become the largest community solar-electric array in the nation.

According to a press release, the college will lease the rooftop of the student union building to Silicon Energy. The company will then install the system and seek the investors. The college anticipates a significant savings on electricity, as well as the opportunity to provide a hands-on solar technology experience to students.

Photo courtesy of William Picard

© 2010, Debbie Van Der Hyde. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Debbie Van Der Hyde (8 Articles)

Debbie Van Der Hyde is an experienced freelance writer with a strong interest in sustainability, clean energy and the green industry. For more than a decade, she has helped organizations effectively communicate their brand and promote their products and services through feature articles, brochures, video scripts, podcasts, web copy and more. Now Debbie is expanding her writing repertoire through blogging about the green economy—and what started as a pastime has become a passion. Prior to becoming a writer, Debbie worked in marketing and corporate communications for a global consulting company. When not wordsmithing, she usually can be found volunteering, attempting to perfect a yoga pose, or orchestrating dozens of family activities. More about Debbie is available at www.vdhc.com. She can also be reached at debbie@vdhc.com.

  • http://www.skyhighenergy.com Arizona Solar Energy

    Solar power is only going to become more affordable, more popular and more accessible to consumers. It seems affordable, now but it is becoming cheaper every day to have solar power at home.

  • http://cottagesnw.com T Smith

    What Washington State legislature did, not Seattle, was to allow investment bankers the opportunity to support solar or wind electric generation on Public property. What is missed in this article and WA State is what was not addressed, community solar on private property. Housing developers could make the largest impact in the sustainable electric grid. They have the means and economy of scale to make it work.The reason 50% of housing is not compatible with adding solar panels is the builder/developer designed the roofs to face east/west. Planning and incentives are critical to developers. If in WA they would have included real communities to get economic incentives more new homes and new communities would be built using solar and wind to power these communities, reducing the carbon impact of their development and reaching zero energy load on Utilities.

  • http://cottagesnw.com T Smith

    Here is one for the masses. The Federal tax credit uses public funds to build sustainable energy. If the technology comes from the USA tax dollars put American to work creating the technology. If on the other hand that technology comes from China, Europe, Indonesia or India they get the same 30% public dollars to create jobs in their economies. Is this a good or proper use of public funds? Why should companies not bases in the USA reap the economic rewards from our publicly funded tax policy? is it that US companies like GE and others influenced Congress to improve the social needs of these corporations and their off shore manufacturing facilities. GE has a plant in Brazil to produce wind turbines. The equipment is bought and brought to the US at the expense of the American worker and tax payer to the benefit of GE Corp. and Brazil.Is this good economic and social policy?