If you’ve made it to our blog, you’re probably familiar with the benefits of going solar: lower electricity bills, zero-emissions power generation, and minimal fossil fuel dependence, to name a few. You want to plaster your residence with solar panels, there’s only one issue – you live in an apartment. Or you’re in a home, but the roof is north-facing. Or cutting down your shade trees to install solar strikes you as counterintuitive (it is). The point is, there are a host of obstacles that can get in the way of your clean-power desires. In fact, a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study found that only 22 to 27% of residential rooftop area is suitable for on-site photovoltaic systems. So what can you do? Allow me to introduce community solar, an innovative concept that enables just about everyone to go solar.
Community solar, or solar gardens, began popping up in the western United States around 2006. Since that time, the idea has caught on spawning projects all over the country. The idea is simple: the power at your residence comes from a solar array that is installed at a different location. Think of it like a community garden, where individuals share a large garden space, only with solar panels. And way less zucchinis. Solar gardens increase grid capacity, especially during afternoon hours when demand for electricity is the greatest. Community solar projects are developed by traditional utilities, micro-utility investors, or nonprofit groups. Every project is collectively funded and is uniquely structured. For the end user, however, it boils down to two options; individuals either subscribe on a monthly basis, essentially renting a section of the solar garden, or purchase a share of the array. The electricity a given share produces is then deducted from the share owner’s utility bill as if the solar were on their roof.
Despite the benefits of these developments, there have been significant legal hurdles standing in the way of community solar. The major opponent to legislative reforms have been traditional utility companies. Decentralized, collectively-owned solar power could indeed take away some of these company’s customer base. They also argue that participants in community solar projects use infrastructure that is maintained by utilities without covering the costs (the same argument used in opposition of net-metering). But these same utilities also complain about stress on the grid during solar’s peak production hours and insist that generation capacity be increased. Community solar addresses both of these concerns! The truth, it seems, is that utilities fear a world where individuals or small groups are energy self-sufficient. Like Meja said, “it’s all ‘bout the money”.
Thankfully, laws in California and other states are beginning to favor community solar. The passage of SB 43 earlier this month marks a huge milestone for community solar advocates. From the Senate’s official analysis, “despite their inability to utilize renewable energy, these utility customers continue to pay into solar and renewable programs that fail to benefit them.” Once signed by Governor Brown, SB 43 will allow investor-owned utilities and private groups to develop and operate photovoltaic generation sites with minimal restriction.
“The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will set up rules delineating which clean energy projects qualify for the program, and how costs and benefits will be applied to the generation portion of subscribing customer bills. Vote Solar estimated that more than 20,000 residential ratepayers would be able to participate, if each bought on average a 5-kilowatt share. In addition, schools, local governments, businesses and the military are eligible to invest, according to the legislation.”(http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059987118)
The CPUC will finalize the details of the new program by July 1, 2014. Thanks to SB 43, more Californians can enjoy the benefits of solar by organizing and participating in community solar projects. If there’s a solar garden already in your neighborhood, join up. If there’s not, check out this information about starting one and get involved! Renters of the world, unite!