By George Harvey, staff
Why would you spend more money and pay someone else for a service, when you can spend less money and put it into an investment you will own? More especially, why would you do this when the only difference is the amount it costs and who the money goes to?
The community solar model used by many solar farm developers allows electric utility customers to buy into a solar PV array for some or all of their power. The net-metering program provides these customers with credits that are worth more than ordinary retail electric rates. In fact, they are worth sufficiently more that it is possible for ordinary utility customers to provide for all the electric power they use, rain or shine, day or night, even if they finance 100% of the cost of the solar PVs.
Part of the beauty of this is that once the PVs are paid off, they belong to the customer. So a person buying into such a solar farm can save money immediately because the monthly rate is lower than the cost of electricity, and when the investment is paid off there are no charges for electricity consumed at all.
Peter Thurrell of Soveren Solar, in Putney, Vermont, has been working on community solar projects in which numbers of people take advantage of better economies of scale to buy their solar arrays. Under such a system, people invest as a group in a solar project, with every member benefiting. The program currently seeking investors is a new Solarize Putney farm, but there are four other solar farms in Soveren’s pipeline, and anyone in the Green Mountain Power service area can invest in most of them.
One advantage to this is that people who have no site to put up solar PVs can do so. A single suitable site is found, and everyone benefits. The costs of lease or purchase of the site are spread among the investors. The fact that the work is all done at one site makes installation much more cost-effective.
Thurrell has introduced a few innovations into the design, making the approach even more attractive. One very important advantage is that the members of the group own their own panels. This means they can take the tax credits for the installation, instead of allowing the developer to get them; the credits reduce the owners’ income taxes directly by 30% of the amount invested. We might note that solar PV ownership is a much bigger advantage for people who pay enough income tax to make this worthwhile. (A similar advantage for people of lower income could be developed, and this would be a worthwhile exercise for someone willing to put work into it.)
Another innovation Thurrell has introduced is that 10% of the farm’s income from solar power is donated to a local non-profit organization. In one case, this meant that the municipality got a boost to its income. In another, the recipient was a food co-op. Just about any local non-profit organization could be the beneficiary, with the income going on for many years.
Each solar farm developed by Soveren Solar is a separate corporation, with its own income providing for the upkeep, repairs, and other costs. The farms have 20% of their output reserved for this purpose. This means there will be virtually nothing for the owner to do and no risks, aside from the deductible costs from insurance for damage that might come from a natural disaster; insurance is included in the plan.
There are some downsides to investing in community solar, and Peter Thurrell is quite willing to talk about them. One is that the owner of the panels cannot as easily indulge in the pride of ownership by showing off his solar panels to guests or relatives. There are, after all, those who like to entertain dinner guests by showing them solar PVs. Another is that some people really enjoy doing their own maintenance. One such person would much rather go up on his own roof to sweep snow off his panels than pay someone else to do the job, and for such a person, Soveren Solar’s PV farms might not work, because they offer no opportunity to use slippery ladders.
Soveren Solar is located in Putney, Vermont. The web site is soverensolar.com. The telephone number is 802-869-2500.
Solar projects under construction, in North Springfield, and completed, in Putney, Vermont.