Community solar is gaining popularity from the Pacific to the Atlantic. A case of the two Washingtons shows it. Tacoma Power in Washington state last month announced its first community solar garden. Meanwhile back in the nation’s capital, a George Washington University (GWU) professor has explained the attraction and benefits of community solar.
Washington state’s Tacoma Power will build its 75 kilowatt community solar project in Pierce County early in 2016. While other a community solar projects are built or being built in Seattle, this is the first for the county. “We will build the 75-kilowatt project on our property, but it will be fully funded by customers who purchase solar units. The units will cost $100 each,” the utility stated. As an added bonus the solar panels and inverters are being manufactured in Washington state.
Tacoma Power explained that the community solar farm will allow people to invest and reap the benefits from solar power without having to own a home or be a homeowner with good location and roof structure. “Customers who invest in the solar project will receive an annual Washington state solar production incentive payment, as well as payment for the electricity produced from the project. The expected payback for solar unit owners is about four years,” it said.
Meanwhile back in Washington, D.C., Amit Ronen, director of GWU’s Solar Institute and a professor at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy, discussed the benefits of solar gardens like the one planned for Pierce County’s residents. In a blog on Pv-Tech.org’s site he wrote that community solar promises to reduce consumers' barriers to solar like bad location, or insufficient roofing structure, high prices of solar panels and allowing renters access to solar power by allowing all of a utility's consumers to buy or lease a portion of an off-site solar array.
“In many cases community solar business models offer consumers, developers and utilities more flexibility and value creation than more traditional residential and utility-scale solar installs—a triple win for three distinct groups of solar stakeholders whose interests don’t always align,” Ronen wrote.
That triple win means easier access to solar for community members—building larger systems at a remote location allows developers to use economies of scale and ease of installing a large system in one location to reduce the cost of buying into the system for consumers. “For developers, community solar can mean higher profits,” Ronen said. “Generation can be sold at prices closer to retail electricity rates rather than the wholesale rates that typically govern bigger projects. Customer acquisition costs can also be a fraction of what it takes to land a residential buyer, although community solar contracts are usually for much shorter periods,” he added.
“For utilities, community solar can mean maintaining and satisfying their ratepayers,” Ronen said. Offering customers a chance to purchase community solar as opposed to rooftop or just having more solar in their generation mix can help keep consumers happy. At the same time integrating a community solar project in one location can be easier for the utility than integrating 100 or 1,000 home solar arrays. “Utilities also know best where to site larger distributed solar projects so they boost grid reliability and can provide ancillary services like voltage support and additional peak capacity,” Ronen noted as a couple of the extra advantages of community solar for utilities.
As smaller utilities like Tacoma Power start adopting community solar it will be interesting to see how consumers react. Similarly it will be interesting to see if community solar continues to make inroads into places that haven’t had strong solar policies or interest in the past. But Ronen observed that only 13 states currently have rules on the books allowing community solar.Tweet