Presentations about solar energy have a definite rhythm. Initially, the audience is curious about renewable energy and midway through as they receive more information, the feeling turns to palpable excitement. But inevitably, by evening’s end, some of the excitement has dimmed. About 75% of people who want solar can’t get it, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. They live in multi-unit buildings, rent, or own homes surrounded by shade trees. They’re still enthusiastic about solar power, but are left wondering how they can benefit from it. Increasingly, states are utilizing community solar to solve this dilemma.
Through community solar, residents invest in a remote photovoltaic array the utility company installs, usually within their geographic region. The excess power the system generates is then credited on the utility bills of investors, a process known as virtual net metering. The investor saves money, and uses a clean and renewable energy source. Everyone wins.
In the US, the following states allow such arrays: Vermont, Illinois, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, California, Connecticut and Washington D.C. More states need to get on board because the demand for solar is ever increasing.
The Solar Energy Industries Association reported that the third quarter of 2013 was the second largest for US solar installations and new solar electric capacity added in 2014 is expected to power more than 850,000 American homes. Solar has seen support across political lines: President Barack Obama had photovoltaic panels installed on the White House, putting it in line with his commitment to having 20% of the federal government's energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Residents of all political stripes in Arizona campaigned to protect solar users from hefty new fees from utility companies. In Wisconsin, Libertarians, who often oppose environmental issues, teamed up with environmentalists recently to endorse a proposal allowing residents to lease solar panels.
The precipitous price drop has been the key to changing attitudes. Where once, installation and hardware costs were prohibitive, in recent years, the prices have fallen significantly—making solar a competitive option for many consumers. Community solar, which requires buyers to only purchase a portion of an installation, potentially lowers the cost even more. It also eliminates the need for an individual to purchase or maintain an entire system. Further, a report by SmartPower, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit marketing firm dedicated to promoting clean energy, and Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA) revealed a proven model for dramatically reducing the cost barrier and enticing residents to sign up. Not only did the number of people who purchased solar power increase, but, incredibly, about 20% who bought it had never previously considered doing so.
D.C.’s new plan is particularly exciting. The Community Renewable Energy Act (CREA), which was enacted in October 2013, allows residents to subscribe to power from remote solar facilities using virtual net metering. Washington D.C. is the perfect showcase to demonstrate the potential of community solar, because so many residents rent or live in multi-unit buildings. The CREA allows as few as two subscribers per photovoltaic array, and the arrays cannot be larger than 5 megawatts.
This is a great move for D.C. residents. CREA had its critics—the legislation was first introduced in 2012, but didn’t pass. After a few more months of tinkering, supporters reintroduced it, and now D.C. is at the vanguard of the community solar movement. Vermont’s system operates similarly to D.C.’s. The state’s first community solar farm opened in August in Putney, with 588 photovoltaic panels—all of them owned by 43 residences and businesses that will share in the savings. Another solar farm is being developed in Rutland, and its 50 investor spots are already sold out.
Community solar is at last bringing about the democratization of solar. It’s a simple process that meets the needs of a public that wants to protect the environment, wean the nation off foreign oil, save money on their bills, or all three. So far, 10 states and Washington D.C. have made it available to their residents. Other states should follow suit. This is an exciting time for renewable energy, but solar in particular. The more people who can benefit from it, the better off all of us will be.
Brian F. Keane is President of the nonprofit SmartPower and author of Green is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Our Community Profit From Clean Energy.