Crowd Sourced: Details on a plan for drastic cost reductions, wide deployment of community-scale solar

community scale solar

Community solar to this point has been more of a riddle than a segment. Generally referring to shared solar development that accepts capital from and provides output credit to subscribers and other investors, the potential of the community solar segment is massive. Removing roof and space constraints from the equation, the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) puts the potential market for community solar from a floor of around 3 million households to more than 12 million, depending on program design and marketing.

Ah, program design. Here comes the riddle. How do you design a solution that taps into that potential when often no single stakeholder sees enough benefit to drive project development? Barriers surrounding cost, access and demand continue to drag on the community solar sector’s overall growth when simpler, proven PV models are already established.

More and more answers to the riddle are emerging though, and community solar is moving on a steeper upward trajectory. In 2017, a year in which both utility-scale and residential segments decreased, for the first time since 2010, community solar boomed.

“Minnesota headlined a banner year for community solar, with more megawatts installed in that state than total U.S. community solar installations in all of 2016,” said Austin Perea, GTM Research solar analyst and co-author of the U.S. Solar Market Insights Report for 2017. “We expect community solar to diversify geographically in 2018, with Maryland and New York to be key growth markets for the sub-segment beginning this year.”

Zooming out to the broader community-scale solar (CSS) segment, defined as 0.5- to 10-MW projects that include co-op, municipal and IOU rate-based projects along with large C&I and shared solar gardens, reveals even more potential. In fact, we might be on the verge of an Occam’s razor model for CSS that has a five-year roadmap to 50 cents per watt total installed cost — a cost level that could drive the potential for community solar and other mid-sized solar installations to 30 GW installed by 2020.

RELATED: Solving C&I Solar: How boutique financing is growing this underserved solar segment

What the what?

This concept starts with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a renewable energy think tank located in Boulder, Colo. RMI believes CSS sits in a sweet spot in the market and represents an economic opportunity of as much as $30 billion. CSS systems are large enough to access low costs through economies of scale and small enough to efficiently interconnect into distribution systems. The potential is in projects between 500 kW and 10 MW in size.
“We believe the medium-size market is poised to accelerate very rapidly,” says Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of RMI. “It has significant advantages in that it can be placed close to electricity load, doesn’t need as much space, can go on top of parking lots or be more in the middle of communities. So, therefore the opportunity is very significant.”

In a new report, The Progress and Potential for Community-Scale Solar, RMI offers new approaches to help drive additional development and buyer adoption of this locally sourced resource. The report relays data and insights from RMI’s work supporting co-op solar procurement in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and focuses particularly on the CSS opportunity for rural electric cooperatives. The eyebrow raiser inside the report is RMI’s research that shows a path to reduce CSS costs by 40 percent and enable a 30-GW CSS market — the equivalent of about 50 average-sized coal plants — by 2020.

It’s not all theory, either. In November 2017, RMI gathered 35 diverse stakeholders from across the solar industry to devise a collaborative concept that would realize this vision.

“In demonstrating the ability today to already deliver clean energy at or below 5 cents per kWh on the distribution grid, CSS can be the killer app for cooperatives, supplying a cost-competitive, locally sourced, clean energy resource that also provides resilience benefits to their members,” says Thomas Koch Blank, a principal at RMI. “Seizing on the additional cost-reduction pathways that we identify will help ensure buyers have access to the best CSS offerings.”

The outcome of that November summit was a clear understanding and identification of one path to reduce CSS costs. In full, the plan involves working with manufacturers, communities, utilities and solar developers to build a more transparent, standardized approach that expands market access for CSS installations — functioning, in a sense, as its own community. Here’s how it will happen.

Supply side streamline

The plan starts with the rollout of one or more regionalized assembly plants of modular mounting systems. The goal here would be standardization and factory-assembled units that can be delivered and installed quickly.

“What we really needed to get people to rethink is how solar currently gets solar installed in the field, where all of the components from a diverse set of sources arrive on the site and then everything gets assembled, often at height, which makes it difficult to assemble,” Kortenhorst says. “We needed to get people to think of completely different ways of doing this — a whole system design effort to industrialize the process of assembly, and the big idea that came out is creating a standardized unit that fits on the bed of a flat-bed truck and is easily transported into the field.”

Taken together, RMI estimates a reduction of 20 cents per watt from these regionalized factories. RMI issued a request for information (RFI) to get one or more of them built, and while they are in motion and close to announcing, as of presstime, no specifics were official. Kortenhorst is 100 percent confident one will be in place and deployable by the end of 2018.

“Our concern is to make sure that this solution becomes commercially available at scale and cost effective as quickly as possible,” he says.

RELATED: Solar wealth gap: New reports show size of low-income solar market, solutions to boost installs

Demand side driver

While the supply side is crucial, many of these system cost reductions might have happened organically from the manufacturer side, and those innovations aren’t quite as impactful without the second piece of the puzzle: a reduction in soft costs. Easier said than done, especially with complex community solar deals.
To achieve this, RMI is collaborating with co-ops, municipal utilities and buyer aggregations to build more buyer-side efficiencies.

“The biggest opportunity, in our view, is to help co-ops and municipal utilities realize if you put an RFP out and bring together the site, interconnection, the permitting, the financing and then you go to tender, you are likely to get a much more competitive offer from the developer because you have significantly reduced the risk,” Kortenhorst says.

Putting it that way makes it sound so simple, and it’s not a stretch to expect a municipality to do such legwork at the outset. The more traditional way is kind of silly, really, with the RFP process requiring the developer to take responsibility for permitting and land acquisition pieces that the municipality is in a better position to organize.

“As a municipality, you may know of the appropriate site, you may be able to work with the utility to get a clear commitment on the interconnect, you may be able to deliver the permits upfront and thereby reduce the time and risk for the developer,” Kortenhorst says. “As a collective, as a co-op, you can drive the price down very aggressively.”

These organizations are also best suited for driving awareness and buy-in. Based on market research involving 2,001 residential utility customers and 252 small business customers across the country, a SEPA initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Energy found that while 59 percent of customers were interested in solar in general, only 20 percent were familiar with community solar. In some states, policy dictates that community solar is for the most part a non-utility offer, but in most states, utilities play a leadership role in acquiring the solar resource and offering it as a customer program. According to SEPA, some 170 utilities nationwide currently offer or are planning to offer community solar.

RMI estimates that municipal partners following this blueprint will drive another 30 cents per watt installed out of the cost. Add that to the supply side and voila, a 50 percent per watt install cost reduction.

Current status

Lastly, the concept needs champions at the development, EPC level. Seeds are already being planted.

“We’ve invested roughly $1.5 billion in solar in the last 18 months. If there are cost reduction opportunities that come up, we are willing and able to be there as an interested customer,” says Jenya Meydbray, VP of solar technology, Cypress Creek. “Whatever gets us the lowest cost trajectory while maintaining reliability is the way to go. The product can be pulled through very quickly if the value proposition is compelling enough and the validation is there.”

RMI has been working on this for more than a year, but the timing looks fortuitous in the wake of the #TrumpTariffs news. At worst, just one piece of that two-step cost reduction would more than counter the artificial inflation in module prices.

“This administration has put tariffs on solar panels that amount to 12 cents per watt installed in the first year, and this therefore elegantly aims to overcome that step back in cost effectiveness of community solar,” Kortenhorst says.

A new 3-MW solar project in New Mexico will soon be selling its output below 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, a price RMI believes is the lowest reported contract for distributed PV in the United States. RMI provided project analysis and supported the competitive procurement process for Otero County Electric Cooperative Inc.

“This is a solar size that does not exist at competitive rates currently and could really be a breakthrough for all types of energy buyers, for grid resilience and for the opportunity to explore different ownership models at a scale that has real impact,” says Kassie Rohrbach, associate director, Ready for 100 Campaign, Sierra Club. “The applicability of being able to find a small acreage area in any urban or rural place, the siting possibilities, open up the opportunity to bring solar to scale in places we haven’t been able to before.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Blockbuster New Jersey solar bill raises RPS to 50 percent by 2030, enables community solar

New Jersey solar bill

And this time, they mean it

Surrounded by solar industry and advocates, N.J. Governor Phil Murphy signed a historic bill that will stabilize the solar market through 2021 by (deep breath)

  • increasing the solar target,
  • losing the current solar renewable energy credit trading program in an orderly way,
  • reducing the overall cost of the current solar Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) by lowering the Solar Alternative Compliance Payment, and
  • setting in motion a process for establishing the next generation of solar programs in the Garden State.

The bill also increases the overall RPS to 50 percent by 2030 and creates a community solar program. The Garden State will become the 18th state to enable community solar, which if properly implemented by the Board of Public Utilities will ensure that all New Jerseyans have access to solar energy. The community solar program will give consideration to residential customers, especially in multifamily buildings, and low-to-moderate income customers.

RELATED: Attack the Tariff launches in June to highlight solar industry ideas, innovations

Following are statements from solar advocates and industry representatives:

“It has never been more important for leaders to stand up for clean energy jobs, local investments, and clean air and climate progress in our communities. We are encouraged that in the face of rollbacks in Washington, Governor Murphy is stepping up with bold action,” said Pari Kasotia, Mid-Atlantic Director for Vote Solar. “Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support solar progress. We urge lawmakers to look to New Jersey’s leadership to spur the clean energy economy.”

“The solar industry appreciates Gov. Murphy’s leadership,” said Sean Gallagher, SEIA’s vice president of state affairs. “By signing this bill into law, many more New Jersey residents, businesses and communities will have access to solar energy. This is a huge win for customers, will support the thousands of solar jobs in the Garden State, and puts the state on track to meeting its ambitious clean energy goals.”

“The New Jersey legislature and Governor Murphy should be applauded for passing community solar legislation and recognizing the increased consumer demand for solar energy. If properly implemented, this legislation will create access to solar energy for consumers and businesses across New Jersey for the first time,” said Brandon Smithwood, policy director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “We look forward to working with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to create a robust program that enables hundreds of thousands of consumers across the state to choose community solar and save money on their electric bills.”

“Thanks to this important legislation, New Jersey residents who rent, live in apartments, or can’t afford the upfront cost to install solar panels will now be better able to get their power from the sun,” said Luis Torres, senior legislative representative for Earthjustice. “We look forward to working with our coalition partners to ensure that the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities heeds the call of this law by promoting robust participation from low and moderate income customers in community solar projects.”

“Today Governor Murphy is empowering New Jersey residents to create, store, and share clean solar power with their neighbors, making the electric grid stronger and more resilient,” said Anne Hoskins, chief policy officer for Sunrun. “With the Governor’s leadership, New Jersey will be better prepared for future storms, grow good-quality energy jobs for the state, and build a more consumer-centered energy system with home-grown, affordable power that will benefit everyone.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Community solar wave sweeps through country — how solar installers benefit

community solar for installers

A recent article in Forbes Magazine suggested there are 320 GW of untapped solar potential in the United States. To tap the market, however, solar installers have to think outside traditional solar production models. One model gaining traction throughout the United States is community solar, a way to share the benefits of solar energy with neighbors beyond the traditional solar-array-on-single-family-rooftop model of selling solar electricity. In this article, we’ll examine what community solar is, why it’s becoming popular, where community solar is taking root and why solar installers should consider adding it to their installation repertoires.

Why is community solar becoming so popular?

There are multiple reasons community solar is becoming increasingly popular. For one, it allows solar installers to broaden their pool of potential customers. After all, you can sell solar one rooftop at a time, but even the best installer will eventually run out of usable rooftops to sell. With community solar, installers no longer have to sell to each individual homeowner but can sell to a community instead. It’s a much easier sell because many people don’t want solar on their roofs for aesthetic reasons, or concerns about voiding roof warranties.

Community solar takes all those concerns away and, once one person in the community agrees to purchase solar electricity from the community array, others are more easily persuaded to follow their lead.

Lastly, it eliminates what is usually the biggest objection to solar installations: the cost. Since no one person is being asked to foot the bill for the entire array—instead sharing costs among dozens if not hundreds of subscribers—it’s easier for people to wrap their minds around the idea of solar energy in that context instead of putting it on their individual roofs.

Once the community solar garden is installed, all the participants in the program get to save money while gaining all the benefits from producing their electricity from clean energy. Who’s going to argue with that?

Where is community solar taking root?

Beloit University students help install community solar array in Colorado_GRID2017_2

Beloit University students help install community solar array in Colorado.

Shared solar is also the perfect solution to highly urbanized areas where land is at a premium, but densely packed buildings provide the perfect staging ground for utility-scale arrays.

It’s also taking root in rural areas where land is plentiful, and it’s expensive to string utility wires. In fact, farming communities are perfect places for distributed electricity of any kind—so why not have it be solar?

Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, depending on how you look at it), community solar farms are sprouting in states not typically associated with the Solar Revolution. In fact, the most robust community solar power program is in Minnesota, one of the cloudiest, coldest and snowiest states in the country.

Why? Well, after opposing rooftop solar systems for decades, the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, embraced community solar farms and started installing their own, giving their customers the opportunity to purchase parts of solar panels from which to produce their electricity.

To find out what the laws governing community solar are in your state, click here.

In other words, community solar allows utilities to provide their residential customers savings on their electricity bills by offsetting their use with the energy produced by their portion of the community solar project. With innovations like virtual net metering and other billing options, people see their power bills go down, while utility revenues can continue steadily along.

Community solar proves once and for all that solar power and utility profits are not mutually exclusive—meaning the mindless battles that have often plagued that relationship don’t have to continue in perpetuity.

How do solar installers benefit?

By now, the advantages to the consumer of community solar programs are obvious. But why should solar installers, who’ve made their money for decades selling solar one roof at a time, embrace community solar?

We’re glad you asked. Here’s why:

● 320 GW: To sell 320 GW of solar roof by roof could take the next hundred or so years, and despite our human-nature belief that we will all live forever, we know that’s not true. So why not use community solar to tap into this enormous, untapped market while you can still enjoy the revenues?

● Easier sales process: As we discussed above, it’s far easier to sell solar to a group of people than it is to individuals. Once one community member decides they want to purchase a subscription to a community solar array, the rest of the sales come much more quickly. And once you’ve sold 10 subscriptions or more, you’ve more than made your investment back on the sales meeting.

● Utility backing: Unlike individual rooftop solar sales, which utilities have been known to frown on because they see them as direct competition to their own business model, community solar arrays are something they generally can get behind. From Minnesota to Ohio to New Mexico and every state in between, community solar is being embraced by utilities as a way to keep customers while still satisfying their customers’ desires to get their kilowatt-hours from solar energy.

Having utility backing means much easier permitting processes, fewer interconnection headaches and easier collaboration when it comes to commissioning the new solar array. Think of how much easier your life would be with those advantages—and then think of how community solar could help you get there.

Ultimately, community solar is too good a deal for everyone for you not to embrace it. Customers love it because it allows them access to solar energy in situations where they might not otherwise be able to participate in the Solar Revolution. Utilities love it because it gives their customers another option while keeping them their customers.

And solar installers should love it because it opens new markets that would otherwise be closed to them if they were only selling one solar rooftop at a time.

Andrew Sendy is CEO of SolarReviews.

— Solar Builder magazine

First community solar project in PG&E’s Regional Renewable Choice program on the way

ForeFront Power Logo

ForeFront Power has developed over 800 MW of capacity across more than 1,000 projects, targeted on assisting public sector agencies and C&I firms.

ForeFront Power will build the first community solar project for PG&E’s Regional Renewable Choice program. The program allows PG&E customers, including those who rent or cannot install on-site solar, the option of purchasing up to 100 percent renewable energy from an off-site location.

PG&E’s Regional Renewable Choice program gives residential and business customers – including those who rent – an easy way to participate in solar without installing or maintaining solar panels. ForeFront Power is developing the inaugural Regional Renewable Choice program community solar project in Fresno County. Participating customers will sign a contract directly with ForeFront Power to subscribe to a portion of the energy produced from the 1.66-megawatt solar project. In turn, customers will receive a program credit from PG&E on their monthly energy statement based on the kilowatt-hour output of their subscription with the developer.

RELATED: Three possible shifts in California’s solar market after historic rule

Both residential and business customers may now express their interest in the project to ForeFront Power in order to start their subscription upon project completion in mid-2019.

“ForeFront Power is excited to be the first renewable energy developer to take solar to the next level through community solar for PG&E customers,” said Director of Sales, Rachel McLaughlin. “We look forward to serving customers for whom on-site solar is not the right fit.”

Head here for more information about ForeFront Power’s community solar project with PG&E.

— Solar Builder magazine

SEPA: Community solar capacity doubled in 2017, driven by third-parties

smart electric power alliance

Community solar capacity in the United States more than doubled between 2016 and 2017, from 347 megawatts (MW) at the end of 2016, to 734 MW at the end of 2017. At present, 228 utilities in 36 states have active community solar programs. Those figures are part of the findings in a new report — “Community Solar Program Design Models” — from the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA).

In addition to providing current figures on the expansion of community solar, the “Design Models” report covers lessons learned from existing projects, and a basic “decision tree” tool aimed at helping utilities and other developers ask the right questions for successful projects. The report includes research findings developed in collaboration with the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA).

Key takeaways

• In 2015, utilities administered 60 percent of all community solar programs, versus 40 percent for third-party organizations. That split has since flipped. Third parties now account for 67 percent of community solar programs, versus about 33 percent for utilities.

• The average subscription rate for community solar projects is 83 percent; with subscription rates for third party-owned community solar over 90 percent. Subscription success depends on a range of program design elements, but a project’s financial value proposition remains a major driver.

• Utilities are starting to explore the use of community-scale, distributed solar as a grid asset for improved reliability and grid support services. In Minster, a community-based project combining solar and storage has allowed the town to generate four separate value streams from a single project.

• Many of the community solar projects in service are targeted at low-to-moderate income customers, renters and residential customers who live in multifamily buildings. In the past, these customers have been unable to access the benefits of solar because they don’t own their roofs, or if they do, their roofs cannot support solar.

 

— Solar Builder magazine