By Jill Cliburn
At the Solar Value Project, we believe 2023 marks a shift in our industry and our work. Many utilities, including electric co-ops and public power, are embracing renewables, and some are accepting the challenges of advancing community solar, DERs and local grid orchestration. Utility relationships with wholesale suppliers and markets are still in flux, as are their relationships with business partners that are big and getting bigger. Yet the communities that these utilities serve are clear in their focus on local benefits. As the clean energy transition takes off, we see tension between the drive for speed and scale on the one hand and for local decision-making, resilience, and social equity on the other. There is a role and a reason for local utilities to join in the work of striking this delicate balance.
I came to this conclusion while attending the recent National Community Solar Summit, co-sponsored by the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA), as well as SEIA and SEPA. The event was co-located with a second summit, organized by the U.S. DOE-sponsored National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP). These tandem summits could easily have drawn stark contrasts between opposing visions—and each summit did hold a distinct perspective. But the meetings unfolded more as a game of Red Rover, where each side (one more motivated by business and one more motivated by social change) invited the other to “come over” and create a difficult, but necessary coalition.
What makes coalition-building necessary? By definition, community solar should bring community benefits, but speed and scale can be commanding forces. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), more than 5.7 GW of community solar was installed nationwide by mid-year 2022. Twenty-two states, plus Washington, D.C., have sanctioned community solar policies and programs. Unique community solar programs, characterized as voluntary, also exist in 20 states. Community solar is likely to double over the next five years, but the DOE and community solar proponents would like to see the capacity in this sector soar even higher, to 30 GW or more by 2030.
Fortunately, differences within the ranks of community solar proponents are not headed for a stalemate—or at least not yet. At this month’s tandem summit event, speakers from both the business side and (for shorthand) the social equity side laid out their concerns and their proposed solutions. To illustrate, DOE officials called out a total of 22 outstanding community solar projects from its first annual Sunny Awards competition, including five grand prize winners from across the U.S. that approach the elusive balance. (These projects merit greater coverage, so watch for details in a future Solar Value Project blog.) At the CCSA/SEIA/SEPA sponsored summit, fast-growing solar developers, asset managers and software providers joined policy leaders to critically examine how they could go bigger and better. And at the NCSP summit, national “Justice 40” policy leaders and community based organizations completed the same examination in reverse order. For example, could replacing the current two-bill system for community solar (one bill from the utility showing credits and one from the developer for the subscription cost) with consolidated utility billing increase subscriptions and customer satisfaction without eroding competing providers’ brands? And how might consolidated billing affect community-based organizations’ outreach and social impacts?
Notably, speakers at both summits called for more utility engagement in these discussions. By my estimate, less than 10 utility staff from across the U.S. attended. Most of them represented co-ops or public power utilities, including leaders that we’ve featured on this website. True, distribution utilities that are investor-owned tend to lay low until their regulators speak. But the solution to what CCSA has called “the democratization of energy” cannot be achieved until utilities join this coalition. The analogy must shift from opposing tensions on a wire to the worn but sturdy image of a three-legged stool, representing local advocates, distribution utilities and community solar providers.
(1) A footnote: readers may enjoy hearing further discussion of community solar perspectives, on a webinar recently hosted by the Clean Energy States Alliance.