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Community Solar – the Game Changer for the Green Revolution

This 150kW Community Solar project in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been providing power to six residences and three businesses since October 14th, 2014. Photo courtesy Soveren Solar

This 150kW Community Solar project in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been providing power to six residences and three businesses since October 14th, 2014. Photo courtesy Soveren Solar

 

By Daniel Hoviss
Putney VT

Merriam Webster says a Game Changer is a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way.

Right now community solar is seeing an explosion in adoption. Systems are being installed all across Vermont and other parts of the country.

There are many reasons why community solar is getting very popular and receiving grant awards.

  • Not everyone has that perfect roof or sunny back yard to put a solar panel on. So community solar makes it possible for a much higher number of people to “go solar.”
  • Doesn’t affect aesthetics. A homeowner doesn’t have to worry about how solar panels would look on his or her roof or about the need to take down any shade trees.
  • Installing your own solar electric system will mean that you as the homeowner or business owner will have to assume the burden of insurance and maintenance for that system for 30 years, while most manufactures warrant the products for less time. Community solar often includes insurance and maintenance agreements.
  • Community solar offers potentially more reliable electric production, as compared with typical power from the “grid,” because it is done in an ideal location. If power goes out to your town or street, your community solar installation may still be producing power and feeding that to the grid. Using higher voltage commercial grade equipment in an ideal setting also results in greater efficiency.
  • Many community solar installations are seasonably adjustable, so they generate more electricity during the year than roof mounted or non adjustable ground mounts.
  • You can move to a new home or office and your electricity credits follow you, as long as you stay in the territory of the power company with which you made your community solar deal.
  • You can give, donate or transfer (in a one-time sale) your electric credits anytime, to anyone who is a customer in the the power company’s territory.
  • You do not need to own your home or office to invest in clean energy.
  • Greater access. This means anyone who rents or owns and pays a power bill can benefit from community solar, as long as he or she is within the power company’s territory, they can join the community solar group. This can include whole States, or large portions of a State or just communities, as determined by the developers.

Types of community solar

Type 1: Investors pool their money to create a company or work with existing companies, to finance the project. Contractors build the system and investors sell shares. This has the advantage of a set price per watt, and no need for tax incentives. It works well for fixed income or people that are no longer paying income tax. This is what the VECAN site calls a “Third Party ownership / partnership model”

The downside is that this tends to be slightly more expensive; as the end user cannot own the panels for five years while investors make use of incentives and depreciation. Sizes up to 500kw. Sun Farm VT and others use this approach.

Type 2: Company or group builds system (locally funded by owners); member-owners own panels and possibly infrastructure from day-one. This is often less expensive as members can take advantage of the federal and (for businesses) federal incentives and the accelerated depreciation. Sized up to 150kw per project Soveren Solar and Green Mountain Community Solar and others, use this approach.

For a variation on Type 2 – what VECAN calls Direct Community Ownership. The community gets involved and handles the financial and installer selection process, then builds a system that community members can buy into.

Type 3: Company builds system, sells power to ‘off takers’ like large businesses or towns or schools or in some cases multiple homes and businesses. There is no upfront cost to the user. This is just a power purchase agreement and may have an option for buyout after 10 years. Sun Common uses this approach, it is not exactly community solar as there is no ownership or purchase of equipment but may be bundled in a project that incorporates community solar as part of the financial structure. It is appealing in it’s simplicity, and assured discount. Green Lantern Capitol uses this approach at a larger scale, not generally thought of as community solar.

Type 4: Other types of solar projects are possible – District Community Solar, for example. There is excitement over ‘solar on landfills’ and the district that owns the landfill would sell excess power in a power purchase agreement to towns, or invite towns to purchase a portion of the system or panels to offset the investment costs of the project, to ensure long term reliable clean power for municipalities that are part of the waste district.

School districts across the nation are also now taking a serious look at this model, as the school districts would own all (or portion of) the panels in a large project, and power would be credited to the schools as a line item,offsetting consumption. Since schools are funded by taxpayers, and since there are tax incentives not available to non-profits, school districts must partner with for-profit entities that can make use of those incentives.

Type 5: Utility scale projects and partnerships – It is a testament to the viability of solar power that utilities are installing large projects globally, and partnering with towns, cities and organizations to bring “community scale solar” to their customers as an option. This is the “greener mountain power” that we had hoped for several years ago. VECAN  has a couple of good case studies.

In short, there are many exciting projects and companies offering community solar in Vermont and surrounding States. While there is some confusion about how to categorize  these different types of offerings, there is excitement on the number of projects and amount of solar being installed in Vermont.

Companies offering Community Solar in Vermont:

  • Saxtons River Solar Electric
    Tel: 802-869-2588
    Mobile: 802-490-0640 Email: srsolar@comcast.net

 

Companies offering Community Solar in New Hampshire

Companies offering Community Solar in Massachusetts:

 

Daniel Hoviss writes for GET, works at e-Solutions.org and sells Community Solar for Soveren solar; Soveren has produced 7 Community Solar installations to date and is working on several more this spring, they are by far the most productive fields and the best deal for members.

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