Community Solar: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Consider that only one-quarter of residential rooftops are suitable for solar PV and that one-third of Americans are renters who are typically unable to install a solar system on their landlord’s roof. That adds up to a whole lotta energy consumers who simply can’t go solar in the usual way.

New community solar models aim to address this barrier to adoption by allowing a broader segment of the population to harness the power of the sun. Varying models involving joint-ownership by consumers, utility programs for shared consumer participation, and third-party ownership options are being piloted in a few communities in states.

With a little help from their friends at Vote Solar, IREC assessed these many approaches and recently released Model Program Rules for Community Renewables. Although community solar programs will undoubtedly continue to come in many shapes and flavors according to local needs, these model rules serve as a valuable framework for states looking to advance community solar options. And it’s with great pleasure that we now make them and additional policy guidelines available online via our new Community Solar website.

With detailed prescriptions ranging from the allocation of benefits to program administration, IREC’s model rules stand on two core principles:

1. Participants in a community renewables program should have an experience that is as similar as possible to that of customers investing in onsite renewable energy. It is in this regard that IREC’s model rules recommend some key parameters to support this fundamental tenet. Valuing the energy generated by a community solar system at a participant’s retail rate and allocating these benefits through virtual net metering, for instance, maintains an experience closely comparable to onsite solar investment.

2. Community renewables programs should not undermine successful on-site renewable energy programs. Many states have established programs under which both consumers and businesses have heavily invested in the solar industry. Replacing existing programs with a new community renewables program would only stymie overall market transformation towards grid parity. These new programs should therefore be designed to reach those customers who are unable to consider onsite investment. This can be achieved through programs that allow a variety of ownership options (e.g., direct, third-party, utility) in which utilities play an intimate role in administration and are compensated accordingly.

Delaware is one state that has recently delved into the world of community solar. In early 2010 Delaware’s 145th General Assembly passed Senate Bill 267 to expand opportunities for ownership and participation in solar energy resources. Specifically, the bill adjusts the state’s net metering rules to allow allocation of net energy metering credits to other accounts than the site host. This structure allows groups of customers to harness the benefits of an investment in shared renewable energy facilities.

Delaware’s lawmakers should be commended for their vision for expanding renewables opportunities in the state. SB267 sets forth a clear policy direction. Now it’s time to find where the rubber meets the road. Delaware’s regulators are in the process of implementing the new provisions, and Vote Solar is engaged in the process working to establish a robust and effective community renewables program in the state. You can bet that we’ll be working closely with IREC to advocate for those new model rules along the way.

Colorado is also on the forefront of this new movement. In June 2010, Governor Ritter signed the Community Solar Gardens Act (HB 10-1342), which defines such projects as being groups of 10 or more subscribers. The bill contained provisions that ensure these projects won’t be regulated by the Commission like utilities, and extends many of the same net metering benefits to community solar participants that are currently available to homeowners with behind-the-meter solar systems. The program will begin as a 3-year pilot with up to 6 Megawatts of development. Commission-hosted workshops will begin in early December to flesh out the rules for implementing this program and Vote Solar will be an active participant.

Vote Solar is a non-profit grassroots organization working to fight climate change and foster economic opportunity by bringing solar energy into the mainstream.

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