HomeLink Magazine Summer 2014: Community Solar Garden
Sharing the Sun
How Community Solar makes the Solar Revolution an option for everyone
By Emily Hois
Steamboat Springs averages 242 days of sunshine each year—nearly forty days above the national average. Aside from providing residents with an abundance of mood-elevating vitamin D, the sun offers a source of clean and infinite energy. The benefits of renewable energy are well-known: fewer global warming emissions released into the atmosphere, improved environmental quality and public health, energy price stability, even job creation and economic vitality. More electricity users are demanding clean energy solutions, and smart utility companies are exploring the best methods for satisfying their customers’ needs.
The Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA) is a cooperative utility that serves almost 26,300 meters in northwestern Colorado and into Wyoming. Its members have been interested in solar energy for several years, according to Melissa Watson, YVEA manager of consumer accounts. “We’ve been listening and trying to determine what the best option was,” she said.
Building their own solar facility wasn’t feasible, since the utility would be using members’ money to fund the project. So YVEA chose to partner with community solar developer, Clean Energy Collective (CEC), to make renewable energy available to every ratepayer in its 7,000-square-mile service territory.
A community solar array, or “solar garden,” is a centralized photovoltaic (PV) facility that allows local residents to own or lease solar panels in a shared project. “[Community solar] provides an important role in allowing those who can’t install solar on their own roof,” said renewable energy strategist and NABCEP board member Carl Siegrist. “For example, those living in apartments and condominiums, homeowners without a south-facing roof or a shaded roof, or those who might see solar on their property as a hassle.”
Rather than opting for the simpler leasing model, CEC chose the more complicated route—an ownership model that produces a customer payback of three-to-four times higher. “We have a solution that can provide what the country needs in all fifty states,” said CEC’s founder and CEO Paul Spencer. “That will allow us to serve the widest swath and need for clean energy throughout the country.”
The company’s innovative model—the only one of its kind in the US—enables utility customers to purchase panels in a shared array and reap the benefits of their asset over time. Immediately, panel owners receive credits on their electricity bill for the clean energy their panels generate and feed into the grid. This helps utilities achieve their state-mandated renewable requirements, such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 252. Passed last May, the bill requires rural electric cooperatives to generate twenty percent (up from ten percent) of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
“Senate Bill 252 was definitely a front-runner in our decision,” Watson said of YVEA’s partnership with CEC. The 577 kW community solar project helped the utility reach its state renewable requirement six years early. “This lets everyone know we support green energy, but it’s not going to take away from the coal,” she said—an important factor for communities such as Craig, Colorado that rely heavily on the coal industry. “We’re going to offer solar because our members are asking for it. This is one of the best ways because we’ve seen Poudre Valley and Holy Cross Energy go through it, and the benefits from their participation.”
Both Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association and Holy Cross Energy have partnered with CEC, giving their members the option to use solar energy. All 832 solar panels in the first two community arrays sold out before the projects were even built. A second, much larger array was constructed in Holy Cross territory and all 3,575 panels are now sold out to local residents, businesses and nonprofits.
Steve Child, Pitkin County Commissioner, helped the latter array sell out with a fourteen-panel purchase to offset the electricity of his Snowmass home. “Since our roof has some shading and heavy snow load issues, investing in a community solar project in a sunny location without a lot of snow made sense,” Child said. The Holy Cross Energy member should save over $700 the first year and more than $120,000 throughout the array’s fifty-year lifespan. “The best investment a person can make right now is in solar energy, and community solar provides an easy and fun way to do that,” Child said.
For CEC’s new solar project in YVEA territory, ratepayers can buy a single 300-watt solar panel for $825, or choose to offset all of their home’s electricity usage by purchasing more panels. If members reserve their panels with a down payment before the array is online or starts producing clean energy, they can receive a rebate of fifty cents per watt—a savings of $150 per panel. YVEA members can expect an average annual payback of fifteen percent over the lifetime of the solar array.
A simple and hassle-free alternative to rooftop solar, CEC’s community solar facilities are fully maintained, insured, annually inspected and continually monitored. “This is a cost effective way to provide your own renewable electricity, with someone else taking care of the system,” Child said. “You don’t have to climb up on your roof to do any installation or maintenance.” If a customer moves, he or she may sell their panels to anyone in the same service territory.
Will the convenience of community solar replace the demand for rooftop installations? It’s doubtful.
“I think solar is still, in most markets, so new that the idea of someone climbing up on their roof and potentially causing penetrations that they don’t necessarily want or understand, is still an issue for a lot of folks,” Siegrist said. “But I don’t see [community solar] ever replacing rooftop solar—there’s going to be room for both.”
Besides homeowners and renters, businesses and municipalities can also share the benefits of locally-sourced, community solar power. Looking toward our energy future, shared renewables will undoubtedly impact utility companies and the traditional grid overall. While some utilities may initially perceive community renewable projects as a threat, CEC proves that the two parties can, in fact, form mutually-beneficial partnerships.
“We continue to think that if the solar community and the utility community don’t become aligned, they’ll continue to essentially be combative with one another,” Spencer said. “We’re trying to buck that trend by partnering with utilities to find a middle ground that serves the utility well and the consumer well and we’re just the mediator in between.”
As nine out of ten Americans reveal they want to harness the power of the sun, community-owned solar makes utilizing clean energy more affordable and practical than ever before.
“There’s truly a solar revolution going on,” Siegrist said. “And there’s no way it’s going to stop.”
To learn more about participating in community-owned solar, visit www.YVEAsolar.com or call Clean Energy Collective at (800) 646-0323.