Community-Owned Solar Gardens a Win-Win

Sweet spot in clean energy adoption proving a win for customers, utilities and communities.

By Tim Braun

Community-based solar gardens represent a golden opportunity for developers and installers. Midway in scale between residential- and utility-scale projects, the concept offers attractive economies of scale to small investors, including homeowners.

The solar garden (also referred to as community-sited energy, off-site solar or solar cooperative) is a distributed energy model where a photovoltaic (PV) project, up to several megawatts in scale, is located in and serves a participating utility territory. Essentially, a developer creates a sizeable facility on a site ideally suited for maximum solar production, allowing local rate payers to own panels within the facility and share in the economies of scale. A key advantage: The solar garden gives renters, apartment residents and homeowners with shaded properties the opportunity to participate in net-metering savings, at reasonable up-front cost.

2-23CEO_Paul_Spencer
Paul Spencer

Clean Energy Collective (CEC), a Colorado company, pioneered the first community-owned solar garden in the country. “Community solar gardens are built faster than large solar farms, installation and maintenance costs are still relatively cheap, and our structure allows members to receive all of the rebates and tax incentives of home-sited systems,” explains Paul Spencer, CEC’s founder and CEO.

The Right Message for Consumers

Solar gardens allow those who can’t otherwise have a solar system at a residence or business to reap the benefits of renewable energy. Buy-in is within reach for most prospective customers, with pricing as low as $535 for a single 230-watt panel, which is a net cost of less than $2.50 per watt after rebates and incentives. For the customer, the time-intensive process of researching and sourcing a home system is replaced with a single phone call, followed by an almost immediate credit on monthly utility bills. And unlike leased systems, the solar garden share is considered an asset, one that can be sold, gifted to a family member or charity, or transferred to a new residence within the utility territory.

“This represents the future of clean energy, by opening the market of solar ownership to everyone with a utility bill,” Spencer said. “It’s not supplanting people who can and want to put solar on their house, but rather expands the market to the other 98 percent of electric users.”

Utilities Seek Plug-and-Play

While the CEC’s model makes PV energy available to everyone on the grid, real traction for rapid solar garden development lies in its broad appeal for utilities. It’s an opportunity for a utility company to add solar to the power mix with a turnkey solution. It provides in-network, reliable, utility-scale clean energy generation at reasonable power rates that applies nicely to an RPS without capital outlay or responsibility for monitoring, customer administration, operations and maintenance.

Administration is streamlined with CEC’s RemoteMeter, a proprietary software package providing remote metering capabilities for CEC customers. RemoteMeter automatically tracks the fractional energy production of each individual owner/member’s panels within a collective energy facility. The data, driven by real-time meter and meteorological readings, are stored for processing, reporting and integration with the utility, enabling customers to realize remote metering benefits directly on their utility bills without placing any burdens on the utility or its staff.

“This is one more arrow in our quiver to meet our renewable energy quota,” says Del Worley, CEO of Holy Cross Energy, which provides power to much of Western Colorado. “A vital benefit to us is that it’s a utility-scale facility that fully integrates with our systems and, more importantly, one that is privately operated and maintained.”

For solar developers, it is an easily replicable model that provides instant entry into a whole new market of renewables with suitable yields. CEC’s partner program can provide developers with a turnkey community solar solution, allowing developers to instantly expand the breadth of their offerings, tap a new market of solar buyers and differentiate their offerings for others in the market.

Communities Get on Board

Communities are quickly warming to the concept of community-sited solar because any municipal effort toward a cleaner environment and energy independence supports a positive “brand” image. But more so, it is proving to be the ideal solution to repurpose marginalized, otherwise unusable land.

In Colorado Springs, CEC is converting the closed Templeton Gap Landfill, a 43-acre brownfield site, into a renewable energy park housing a 500-kilowatt (kW) community solar array that will deliver power to 200 to 300 Colorado Springs Utilities customers.

Putting solar panels on the corner lot isn’t quite like planting a neighborhood veggie garden. Careful consideration is required regarding ownership and capitalization structures, financing methods, third-party ownership and development arrangements, ownership of RECs, property tax liability and interconnection and net-metering rules.

While legislation is not needed in any state to permit solar gardens, solar gardens laws have been established in Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington, and are pending in California, Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Details vary by state. Current Colorado regs, for example, state that solar gardens can be anywhere from 10 kW to 2 megawatts (MW). Each project must have at least 10 subscribers and the size of each subscription is capped at 120 percent of the subscriber’s average annual energy use. Some of the power must be reserved for low-income residents. Under California’s SB 843, though, solar gardens could be as large as 20 MW, which could power more than 5,000 homes.

So far, CEC has successfully navigated these still-murky waters. Their first two projects with Holy Cross Energy total nearly 1 MW, and an additional 2.5 MW is now approved for development. They have 1.6 MW of capacity under construction in three other Colorado utility territories, and are in some stage of development for an additional 40 MW.

CEC is also currently in discussions with more than a hundred interested licensees across the country, and with a multi-billion-dollar solar integrator to export the model. By the end of 2012, Spencer estimates CEC’s community-owned arrays will provide upwards of 10 MW of energy capacity, reaching more than 100 MW nationally by 2015. “There’s truly no limit,” he says. “It could go from there to gigawatts very quickly.”

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Tim Braun (tbraun@b2inc.net) is a communications professional specializing in renewable energy and active lifestyle products. Tim has contributed to articles for Homepower Magazine, Public Works, Colorado Energy News, Paddling Life, and more. A Colorado resident, Tim is also a solar garden customer.

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