How the Solar Industry is Coming Together to Expand Community Solar

community solarCommunity solar farms (made up of PV panels purchased by offsite owners) have been saviors for renters and apartment dwellers without control of their own rooftops. But with less than a dozen U.S. states with enabling legislation on the books — and a smattering of utilities and third parties that have pushed through projects — they’re far from widespread.

Now a new project led by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) is trying to change that dynamic by laying the foundation for more Americans to get a piece of the PV pie.

Over the next three years, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization will gather solar stakeholders to hone in on what components makes a community solar project successful, craft new models based on this process, gauge consumers’ reception to these models and set up pilot projects to test them in the real world.

The work is being funded by a $700,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

“There are multiple pieces of the project,” said Becky Campbell, SEPA senior manager of research. “The first is to work with a pretty large cross-organizational working group to narrow in on some community solar models that we believe will work across multiple different circumstances — different regulatory environments, policy environments, utility structures and political environments.”

When the group convenes for the first time next month, it could investigate the set of circumstances most befitting for various kinds of community solar farm administrators (such as a utility, grassroots group or another third party), or what participants get in exchange for their participation (e.g., the ability to purchase panels or only buy electricity).

The working group — which will be composed of solar industry companies, utilities, financing groups and advocacy organizations (confirmed members to date include FirstSolar, Clean Power Finance, Clean Energy Collective, Sunshare, CPS Energy, Pedernales Electric Cooperative, Rocky Mountain Institute and the Regulatory Assistance Project) — will come up with about five to eight program models that are viable under a range of circumstances, according to Campbell. SEPA will release a report detailing these models in the third quarter of this year.

Then, Knoxville, Tenn.-based environmental market research firm Shelton Group will measure public reaction to the models identified by the workgroup.

It’s this consumer research component that makes the project unique compared to previous efforts by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council to establish model rules and recommendations for what makes community solar work, according to Campbell.

“A lot of work has gone into what works from an administrative perspective, but not a lot of effort as to whether or not if something works from a consumer perspective,” she said. “We think by introducing that piece to the project, we’re giving some level of confidence that if you adopt one of these models, not only will the administrative hurdles be minimized, but you have a certain level of assurance that you’re adopting a model that has been shown to resonate with the consumers you’re trying to reach.”

Campbell expects that these two phases will be completed halfway into the three-year grant — with the remaining time devoted to getting the solar farms off the ground. SEPA will work with approximately eight program administrators to do this, she added.

But there’s one obvious question: Given the enormous amounts of coordination and approval required with multiple jurisdictions to set up community solar, how can SEPA and its partners pivot so quickly?

“Our hope is that [in] standardizing these models, we streamline the timeline to get it off the ground,” Campbell said. “Obviously if a utility is going to adopt this model that doesn’t alleviate us from going through the regulatory approval process. Timelines for approvals tend to differ … we hope that standardizing models will streamline the process a bit.”

Community solar photo CC-licensed by BlackRockSolar on Flickr.

Kristine Wong
Author: Kristine Wong

Kristine Wong is a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food. Her work has been featured in The Guardian (UK / US), The Huffington Post, GreenBiz, and other publications. Before becoming a journalist, she worked in community-based environmental and public health organizations for more than 10 years as a researcher and community organizer. She has degrees in natural resources and journalism from U.C. Berkeley and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter @wongkxt.

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