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Community Solar installation Photo courtesy of SunShare

The community solar concept is gaining ground across the US, and it could work anywhere in the world where virtual net metering can be implemented. Also called a community solar garden, it gives people a way to use solar energy without having solar panels installed on their roofs. The solar gardens are really solar farms, built on a piece of land either in or near the community that it serves.

The September 2014 report, “Expanding Solar Access Through Utility-led Community Solar” from Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) found that community solar participation jumped 64% in 18 months in the US.  

Utilities supporting solar in the US

Expanding solar access through utility-led community solar. Credit: SEPA

According to SEPA, community solar programs get launched in one of three ways: Utilities can initiate community solar programs in response to customer demand for solar options; utilities launch community solar to meet regulator mandates; utilities play a “pass-through” role in third-party of community solar installations by taking responsibility for virtual net metering for its customers. As of August 2014, SEPA was tracking 57 utility-offered programs in 22 states with 52 of them originate by the utilities.

Market potential

The potential market is huge: About 80% of the population in the US cannot benefit from solar on their roof because either they don’t’ own their home or the roof is shaded or oriented in the wrong direction for optimal sunlight.  An increasing number of people want to use solar energy, many for environmental reasons, but for some businesses it’s because of a mandate to become carbon neutral.

Another incentive is the cost of energy. According to SunShare, a Colorado-based community solar firm, their customers pay either the same price they are paying for fossil fuels or, in many cases, they are getting a discount.

The National Community Solar Platform

The US Energy Department recently selected Clean Energy Collective (CEC), a community solar provider, to receive a $700,000 SunShot Initiative cooperative award to develop and implement the National Community Solar Platform (NCSP).

“Community solar can be complicated and if we want to see rapid growth and a reduction in soft costs, we need to see utilities building projects, said Tom Hunt, Director of Research & Government Affairs with CEC. The way the NCSP will work is that it will take tools that CEC has developed and proven in the marketplace and make them available to utilities and others to help them build out more community solar projects. “Some are daunted by the hurdles,” Hunt explained. The platform will include tools to help with building system integration, security and legal compliance, and customer interaction. Customer interaction, for example, can include a monitoring system that community solar customers can access in real time to see how much energy their investment is generating.

While CEC is one of the leading community solar companies in the US, and possibly the first, it would seem that by offering its tools up to anyone is giving its secrets away to the competition. Hunt said that in some areas there will be competition, but he added that they’ve “developed a lot of tools. If others can develop projects, it just makes the market bigger for everyone. There’s room for more.”

SunShare is a Colorado-based community solar specialist that may benefit from the NCSP.  Karen Gados, Business Development and Communications Director at SunShare, agrees that the need is there because of the complexity of dealing with different types of utilities, state and local laws. She said that by making these tools available to utilities and communities, that community solar will expand and companies like SunShare will be able to participate in those markets. Community solar can only be implemented if utility or local policy-makers allow for community solar, Gados noted, adding that having central access to information as proposed on the NCSP, would “speed up the process of establishing new community solar programs.” Gados said that it is important for such platforms to provide a way to share information; “Because the community solar industry is growing so fast and so many new ideas are generated on an almost daily basis, we suggest that those designing the platform provide a way for community solar stakeholders to interact and share ideas in real time.”

The Energy Department is working with CEC through a cooperative arrangement. Hunt explained that CEC is putting a lot of work in, but the DOE’s role is to make sure it’s done well and that it will be a fit for all markets. “We’re excited that they see the potential,” he concluded.  CEC will develop and test the NCSP over the next 18 months, with tools becoming available as they are built.

Written by Anne Fischer, Managing Editor, Solar Novus Today

Labels: Clean Energy Collective,SunShare,SEPA,community solar,net metering,utilities,legislation,solar installation

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