Sometimes it Takes a Community to Go Solar

By: Andrew Barbeau, EDF’s clean energy consultant

sunflower_AustinTXfinals-37_(1)_CC-4C_RFYou don’t have a south-facing roof. You have too many trees in your yard. You may not be committed to staying in your house for the next ten to fifteen years. Or maybe you rent, or don’t have the upfront money to install.

These may be some of the reasons why you can’t go solar. You are not alone.

In fact, only 22 to 27 percent of residential rooftops are suitable for installing a solar PV system, due to structural, shading, or ownership issues, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. These effects are even more prominent in densely-populated, urban areas, like Chicago, where viable project siting is limited and renters account for more than half (55 percent) of housing.

But in a new utility world of flowing electricity data and layered intelligence, we shouldn’t limit participation in the rapidly growing solar market to those inconvenienced by circumstance. We need to shift our thinking of distributed solar from the individual to the community.

Virtues of virtual net metering

That’s why Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Citizens Utility Board (CUB) filed Illinois’ first-ever community solar plan with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) last week. The plan would enable customers of the largest utility in the state, ComED, to sign-up as “subscribers” to larger solar arrays located in the neighborhood. The subscribers would then get a credit on their electricity bill for the energy produced from these community solar projects through a process called virtual net metering.

Under virtual net metering, residents would get a “kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour (Kwh)” credit on their electricity bill for their share of the electricity produced by the community solar project. For example, a 250 kW community solar project may generate 37,500 kWh of electricity per month. If you, as a subscriber, had a one-percent share of that community solar project, you would see 375 kWh of electricity use deducted from your electricity bill.

While some find it hard to rationalize a direct roll-back of electric meters if the solar array is not connected to an actual home, it does makes sense. If a community solar project generates more electricity than is needed for subscribers’ homes, the electricity goes back to the power grid. The electrons don’t travel to Pennsylvania and back. They go to your neighbor, or to the businesses down the street. As a distributed, self-generating asset, community solar actually supports the larger power grid and brings overall system costs down.

Other perks

Community solar and virtual net metering provide a number of additional benefits that have made them popular across many states:

  • Optimized project siting: Unlike rooftop solar, subscribers of community solar have more flexibility when considering where to locate their project. Possible sites could include brownfield and greenfield sites, local schools and community centers, or even the nearby big box
  • As the size goes up, costs come down…significantly: A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for instance, calculated that the installed cost of solar drops over 30 percent when moving from a 2 kilowatt system (good for a home) to a 10 kilowatt system (good for a small business), and drops almost 40 percent when moving to a 1 MW system (best for a community).
  • Ease of relocation: If residents move to a new home in the community, they can bring their subscription with them.
  • Innovative project financing: Just like crowd-funding has revolutionized the start-up community, crowd-funding for solar projects can expand opportunities for participation to those who would not be able to participate otherwise.

The momentum for community solar is building, and a number of states have already begun this process in the past few years. Minnesota, for instance, recently saw applications for 400 megawatts of community solar projects – enough to power over 65,000 homes. In Illinois, Chicago and the larger Cook County area recently received an award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative to explore community solar business models and to identify potential project sites. Further, the recently-formed Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, of which EDF is a part, included a requirement and a funding mechanism for community solar projects in its priorities, which have made it into legislation introduced last week.

If we truly want to open up solar energy to the masses, embracing the community solar wave is key. Sometimes it really does take a community to go solar.

Andrew Barbeau is a President of The Accelerate Group, and works with Environmental Defense Fund to accelerate clean energy policy in Illinois.

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