Solar projects in Pennsylvania have been relatively rocky, whether you’re talking home solar, commercial solar or utility-scale solar. The state’s solar industry boomed for a while thanks to a solar renewable energy credit (SREC) that was overheated as utilities hurried to buy SRECs—then they got their fill, leaving the industry to falter. It has recovered somewhat, but there’s a whole area of solar—community solar gardens—that still aren’t even allowed. But that may be changing as a number of organizations are trying to find a way around current restrictions on such projects.
Community solar energy projects allow business and homeowners with inadequate locations for solar—renters, and other organizations—to invest in solar without installing solar systems their roofs or yards. Instead, they invest in a solar power project, usually by purchasing a module in a larger project. Community investors are then reimbursed for the amount of power that their module or modules in the array produces. This could be called virtual net-metering. However, having one project net-meter for multiple people is not legal in Pennsylvania as determined by a ruling of the state’s Public Utilities Commission last year.
However, at least two organizations are looking for ways to make such projects doable, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Both Pittsburgh Green Innovators and Community Energy are working on developing models that could avert the sticky wicket of whether a solar project serves multiple customers directly.
For instance, Community Energy, a Pennsylvania-based electricity provider for PECO customers, announced that it broke ground on a new project at Temple University on Oct. 31. “A few thousand residential electric customers joined Temple in signing up with Community Energy to build this solar project,” said Brent Alderfer, CEO of Community Energy, Inc. “Our mission is pretty simple: To build a green utility in time to un-change climate change.” Since the company is already set up as a utility, customers of PECO can sign up to get their electricity from solar.
“The first of its kind at a college or university within the City of Philadelphia, the Community Energy Solar at Temple University project demonstrates a commitment in the private sector to continue to innovate and develop despite [the] lack of public policy pushing clean energy in PA and the oversupplied SREC market,” the company said in introducing the project. “This community-driven project exemplifies more and more corporations and universities finding socially responsible ways to both invest money and make a difference in their communities by supporting smart clean energy options in a state flooded with fracking and air quality concerns.”
Community Energy offers three different packages for PECO customers on its site, a fixed-rate at 12.40 cents per kilowatt hour, a variable rate at 11.7 cents per kWh and the solar builder (which also has a flexible rate, at the same price as utility solar) and currently listed at 9.35 cents per kWh.
Another group in Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Green Innovators—which transformed the Clifford B. Connelley Trade School into the Energy Innovation Center—is looking to create a community solar-esque project. The organization is comprised of universities, nonprofits and labor unions, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The newspaper said the organization is looking to advance a campaign called "Growing Solar from the Hill." Under that effort, Pittsburgh Green Innovators would develop three pilot projects totaling 15 to 30 kilowatts in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The projects would be located at nonprofits, which would sign power-purchase agreements for the solar electricity produced by the arrays, the newspaper reported. The group could create an LLC or solar cooperative that is self-sustaining and that could develop more of such projects.