Thanks to Solar Holler, a West Virginia-based non-profit solar development company for showing us how to prompt community engagement and leverage demand response (DR) in a completely new way. While this program model is not driven by a utility, it is utility-savvy, employing a similar DR strategy as the highly regarded program at Steele Waseca Electric Cooperative.
Two differences, though: First, it is focused on bringing solar benefits to public buildings, low-income housing, and churches, in a true spirit of “shared solar.” Second, it monetizes DR benefits at a regional market—in this case PJM. That may be a region-specific opportunity, but the overall program translates to almost any utility easily. Moreover, the big story here is that there is plenty of room for out-of-the-box thinking and innovation in the community solar space.
Let’s take the example of Solar Holler’s first project, where about 100 participants helped put 16-kW of PV on a Shepherdstown, WV, church. Anyone who has worked with a non-profit community based organization, whether it be a school, church, library or community center, is well aware of the challenges associated with meeting basic financial obligations—including the energy bill. Grant applications, fund drives, bake sales and passing the hat are efforts that are all too familiar to the good folks doing good things. All of this consumes an inordinate amount of effort and creates constant worry for the organization’s board and staff.
But Solar Holler has developed a model that takes a chunk of the ongoing expense of energy costs away from the organization, engages supporters, and provides collateral benefits to the community at-large. Based on estimated project costs, Solar Holler launched a crowd-funding effort for the church. Rather than ask for cash, participants that have electric water heat were asked to sign up for a free water heater controller. A small, nearby company that serves as a DR aggregator, called Mosaic Power, put in the devices, controls them together as a “virtual power plant,” and then participates in the PJM energy market. Mosaic gets paid for participation as a curtailment service provider. The aggregator covers the cost for the equipment and installation of the water heater controller, as well as paying $100 per year to the each participant. Instead of receiving the annual payment directly, participants agree to apply the money toward payments on the loan for the solar installation. This plan has benefited the church and subsequently other facilities that serve low-income communities.
Solar Holler points out that the combination of solar-plus-DR reduces the use of fossil fuel in two ways. First, the solar project generates carbon-free energy, and second, the DR that Mosaic Power is selling to the grid most likely displaces fossil fuel resources that would otherwise be dispatched. Beyond that, the solar and controller installations are providing real-life experience for local job training programs. According to the Dan Quitos, of Mosaic Power, the program has scaled up well so far and could support a larger effort, covering a large utility territory. The Solar Holler website includes detailed media coverage on all of its projects, including new work in the low-income housing sector.
To hear Dan tell the whole story, go to our webinar archive, under the Media tab. Solar Holler was featured on the CSVP November webinar, along with Grid Alternatives, another non-profit company that brings community solar to the low-income audience. In that case, projects often involve utilities directly. The staff at CSVP has identified these and other low-income community solar programs, in response to strong interest from the utilities nationwide. We invite you to learn more through this fact-sheet, and to let us know how you are tackling the challenge of increasing the availability of community solar options to people of all income levels and all housing types.