by Jill Cliburn
It’s been a decade now since community solar grabbed the imaginations of a handful of forward-leaning utilities and solar entrepreneurs, and the results have been impressive—the market about doubled last year, and has topped 1 GW by now. But these results are still not as great as they could be. At CSVP, we were quoted on this in a recent article by Herman Trabish in Utility Dive. Here, I’ll share a little more of from our last check-in with the crystal ball.
Our gaze at the future is influenced, of course, by our experience in the past. There had been a few community solar projects before 2008, but in that year, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced its SolarShares, rate-based program, supported by a 1-MW utility-owned solar plant. Hopes for community solar soared. Also at that time, United Power, a co-op in the Denver suburbs, developed a plan for an upfront lease for participants in a third-party-financed CS program, called Sol Partners. I was part of that team, as a consultant to the Cooperative Research Network. We ran the numbers and checked and double-checked how the lease would work. The plan was replicable, we were convinced and co-ops nationwide began to notice. I’m not even sure if Holy Cross, another Colorado co-op, took lessons directly from United Power, but its came up with their buy-a-panel model and launched in 2010, working with a company that would become CEC—today’s community solar market leader. At the time, if felt like the discovery the North Pole or of DNA; it was bound to happen, and just a matter of who would get there first.
By 2015, pundits were talking about a GW-per year community solar market. Some simply counted residential rooftops on rentals and shade-covered neighborhoods, assuming that would define the market. At CSVP, we took a different view, building off early market date from SMUD and other utility programs, and then from Shelton Group, which was working with SEPA. There is evidence that the market for community solar includes lots of people who could use their own rooftops, but prefer not to. The question of how the community solar market would grow had more to do with program design than mere eligibility. True that.
So now, I was quoted in Utility Dive: “If policymakers get it right, community solar could rival the rooftop solar market within a decade. But that’s a big if.”
And there’s the rub. The early excitement sparked by a few progressive utility programs has led to greater innovations and bigger markets in states and utility territories where policymakers, utilities and advocates have learned to work well together. Yet in many places, that spark of excitement has led to a firestorm of debate. Can anyone set up one community solar policy and development model that works for everyone? I don’t think so.
Utility-led community solar—especially among investor-owned utilities—has been bogged down by a perceived risk of regulation. Will the regulators approve a program plan, or will it be undermined by a broader, emerging state policy? Regulatory risk is a big drag on utility programs. We encourage utilities to take the lead, anyway. Utilities that are proactive and collaborative always come out better in the end, even if they have to modify their plans along the way.
Second, community solar has been bogged down by a tendency among policymakers—and in turn, utilities—to shoehorn every possible benefit in one program offer. That takes a long time, and it seldom works. By contrast, we’ve advocated for larger utilities to build multiple local community solar projects within a program portfolio, with offers for targeted groups of customers. That model is not terribly different from the state-administered programs that let customers, working with private developers, bring tailored projects to the utility. I would like to see more policies that encourage developers and utilities to aggregate projects and build greater economies of scale within program portfolios. We introduced the portfolio approach as part of the CSVP program-design process, and we also recommend Rocky Mountain Institute’s Shine Program, which has demonstrated a similar process in the field.
At CSVP, we consider our primary audience to be utilities, because no matter how the regulators (or COU policy boards) structure a program, the utility is going to be involved. Moreover, there is a lot of value on the utility side of the solar-value equation. But remember, that does not mean the utility must be the only driver for community solar. We’re proud to be part of building better relationships between utilities and solar service providers. The result has been better choices at every stage of program design and implementation. The impacts, in terms of speeding the process, are just beginning to be felt.
Will this support a sustained year-on-year doubling of the community solar market? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that from where you sit, that’s a crystal-ball question that doesn’t matter as much as the question you hear on the streets of your own community: “Do you think we could do some (or more) community solar here?”