Smart policies are driving the growth of community solar.
Americans love, love solar energy, but not everyone can wrangle a set of rooftop solar panels. Some roofs are too small or too shady, or they face the wrong direction. Some people are renters. Others own their home, but they can’t afford the up-front installation costs.
These barriers, say experts, don’t have to keep Americans from cashing in on solar. If rooftop panels aren’t right for you, you might try something called community shared solar. Band together with friends, neighbors or your church to set up a solar array. Everyone buys in. Everyone reaps the benefits.
Community shared is taking off, but not necessarily in the places with the most sunshine. Rather, solar is growing in states with the strongest policy. The steps currently being taken to advance community solar in New York make that state a prime example.
How does community solar work?
In 2015, Governor Cuomo approved the Shared Renewables Initiative to expand access to clean energy. The initiative enables renters, homeowners and businesses to set up shared solar projects.
Community solar projects can take several forms: One variety is community group purchasing, where a group of homeowners or businesses jointly hire a solar firm to install panels on their roofs. Buying in bulk cuts everyone’s costs. Another option is offsite shared solar. These arrays usually take the form of a solar “farm” or “garden.” Any ratepayer can subscribe to panels in the array and get credited on their electric bill as if the panels were on their own roof. Onsite shared solar is another form of community solar. Residents of an apartment building or tenants in a large office building can put panels on the roof to supply electricity for everyone. And finally, there are community-driven financial models, which involve private investors and donors funding solar installations in low-income communities. Residents in turn reap the cost savings.
New York utilities now credit ratepayers for the electricity produced in their name by offsite solar projects. Consumers play a flat rate to subscribe to a solar panel or two in a shared solar array, and they are credited on their monthly bill for the energy generated by that solar panel. Subscribers pay month-by-month, meaning they can move away at any time.
“People really want to go solar, but only one in five homes are suited for it,” said David Sandbank, director of NY Sun, part of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). But with community shared solar, this is the first time that everyone can buy in.
“Low to moderate income residents now qualify. Renters are in play now. It really widens the demographic access,” Sandbank said. He said NYSERDA is receiving applications for community shared solar worth hundreds of megawatts.
Shared solar arrays cost less per kilowatt than individual arrays, in part because the per-panel cost of installation is lower. Shared solar is also eligible for tax incentives from NYSERDA, as well and state and federal tax credits that apply to any solar installation.
“It’s a big deal and we’re really excited about it,” Sandbank said. “There’s a lot of development because of it, and we’re bringing a lot of business to New York.”
A case study
The first shared solar project in New York state was completed in Tompkins County this year. When community shared solar became a possibility, Renovus Solar, an Ithaca-based solar installer, was eager to jump on the opportunity and conducted an informational session for the community.
“Over our 12 years of business as residential and commercial solar energy installers, we’d disqualified many roofs of hopeful solar owners due to shading issues, size constraints etc.,” Renovus’ Emma Hewitt said. “So we knew that there were many people in this area who wanted a community solar option and would happily become early adopters.”
Judy Hyman, a local clean energy advocate, drove all over Enfield searching for suitable panel sites: flat, south-facing, and electrically compatible.
Renovus looked at Hyman’s notes, aerial maps, and property maps before sending out letters to each person who owned land suited to this purpose, telling them that they might be able to receive income from their land, defray tax costs, and help the environment. Several property owners responded and a site was selected.
About three dozen people signed up for the solar project, which feeds into the utility grid. The array offsets 100 percent of the power subscribers use at home.
“Community solar is about individuals claiming their power production , investing in a clean energy system that they own. It’s the difference between owning your electricity production versus renting electricity from the utility company,” Hewitt said. “And there are big savings associated.”
“With energy prices increasing, the cost of doing nothing is becoming increasingly expensive. Going solar secures a low energy rate for decades,” Hewitt said.
Before shared solar arrived on the scene, there were a lot of Tompkins residents who wanted to solar power, but couldn’t make it work.
“People like me would’ve loved to go solar, but my house is in the woods,” said David Bock, one such resident. When the community project was unveiled, Bock signed up. His monthly electric bill is now about $15.
Net metering laws allow solar power credits to be annualized, so surplus electricity generated in the summer is effectively carried over to winter. So, while the solar panels fell a little short of his needs in October, they’d built up enough credits during the summer to defray his energy costs.
“The future of the planet depends on getting us off of fossil fuels,” Bock said. “Renewables and solar are our best option.”