By Jill Cliburn
We just prepared a dispatch for our e-mail list, which includes folks from utilities and many other stakeholder organizations, who have attended CSVP workshops and webinars. Preparing that newsheet was a nice throwback; some of us even remember when we received such things on paper! But this is now, so we’re sharing our dispatch here, as a blog, as well as on other social networks. Our headline, Check Lots of Channels, refers our media, but also to our message: Because community solar means different things to different people, you can't just tune in to your tribe. Today’s challenge is to stay tuned to community solar developments from many corners of this fast-changing market, to stay open to new solutions, and to work in partnerships you never expected.
One fresh news item illustrates the risks of misunderstandings between parties at work on community solar. On August 11 Iowa Public Radio reported, Environmentalists Fight Alliant’s New Community Solar Plan. How's that? It's a pretty straightforward utility-driven plan, offering participants the generation from each one-kW block of the new solar plant for about $13 a month, which is the utility’s reported cost. But critics from the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center have said there’s no solid long-term benefit for participants, in contrast to panel lease or purchase programs. They also note that the utility had a commitment to this solar plant already. What’s the contribution to the community, if it does push the solar portfolio to a greater bounds?
We tend to agree with the utility spokesperson, who sighed, “You have to start somewhere.” But we also hope Alliant can make continuous, customer-focused and strategic improvements. Alliant told IPR that more than 87,000 of their customers have expressed an interest in community solar. At that, multiples of new community solar projects could reach quite an economy of scale. And within a large, growing community solar portfolio, there could be room for innovation, improving the delivery and understanding of benefits.
It won’t happen if a range of stakeholders don’t talk—and listen. But what a shame if that doesn't happen! Based on the numbers of participants in other community solar programs so far, 87,000 customers could support 100 MW or more. Why wait to find the perfect program model? A portfolio-based program approach could spread the benefits of declining costs and improving benefits across early adopters and late-comers alike. Granted, this is our observation from a distance. But this anecdote seems to support the need for real collaboration and cross-channel communications, beginning right now.
In that spirit, we’ll dive into that promised, wide-ranging newsheet:
- Will community solar matter? New data from the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) suggests the answer is, yes. In its 2017 Utility Solar Market Snapshot that the market for community solar took off in 2016, topping 300 MW installed, with more than 300 MW in the pipeline. Over 170 utilities reported that they had active community solar programs by late 2016, according to SEPA. And SEPA is not even as bullish as some market observers. GTM Research recently predicted 400 MW of community solar in 2017 alone, and it cites statements from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) that co-ops alone could account for more than 480 MW in the near future, surpassing even this bullish market estimate. CSVP saw that reported in Utility Dive, and we plan to follow up, with more details on our website, as we focus our attention on helping utilities navigate this fast-changing landscape.
- Given the potential for confusion over different community solar program models, not to speak of a fairly inexperienced sales force, it’s increasingly important to take consumer protection seriously. We found a few new resources to help trouble-shoot your own program terms or to help innovate something better for utilities, third-party providers, and customers. See Consumer Protection for Community Solar: A Guide for States from the Clean States Energy Alliance (June 2017) and Residential Consumer Guide to Community Solar from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Coalition for Community Solar Access. You will need to edit the material in either of these guides, depending on the rules for your state or local jurisdiction, but the guidelines are widely useful.
- Another indication of a movement afoot… The Community Solar Consumer Choice Act of 2017 (S 1670) was introduced by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in the U.S. Senate July 27. The announcement came as the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a community-solar business group, held a national summit in Denver. Readers may recall that Jeff Cramer, CEO of the Coalition, attended our CSVP Workshop in June. They also may recall a bill introduced in the House several years ago, fueling market interest, if not national policy action
The CSVP Community Solar Workshop on Procurements, Programs and Pricing, June 7-8, 2017, drew a large audience of utility program CEOs, program manager, and non-utility partners. Presentations from the workshop are available in the Library on this website.
- Riding on the wave of community solar interest nationwide, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a new program this year, called the Solar in Your Community Challenge. The Challenge is driven by local governments, non-profits, utilities and other stakeholders—over 100 teams in all—interested in bringing solar to a broader audience in their communities, including low to moderate (L/M) income households. You’ll hear about projects that suit rental housing, housing projects, mobile homes, and that emphasize job training, community volunteerism, local finance, and more. If you’re interested in learning more about the L/M market and the exciting new Challenge projects that serve it, sign up to attend the Solar in Your Community Challenge Workshop at the Solar 2017, the National Solar Conference. This will be a free one-day workshop, October 11, within the larger conference. This hands-on gathering of problem solvers will include a couple of us from the CSVP team!
- There have been a number of good resources developed for the L/M market lately. CSVP issued a factsheet more than a year ago, which is still useful. We also suggest another Clean States Energy Alliance publication (May 2017), Bringing the Benefits of Solar Energy to Low-Income Customers. There’s a recorded webinar, too, at that download location. CSVP is cataloging many more resources for serving this market segment. So far, one utility success story comes to mind. We would also reference work at CPS, on the San Antonio community solar program. In addition to a more conventional community solar offer, CPS started a roof-lease program that has been very successful in the L/M market.
- CSVP will be presenting more on solar plus storage and DR, at Solar 2017, the National Solar Conference. CSVP will be featured in a forum, discussing Taking Community Solar to the Next Level with Customer-Side Storage, as well as sharing our poster on our strategic-value GAP analysis. And of course, we will be at Solar Power International in Las Vegas next month. John will be in the exhibit hall in Start-Up Alley and Jill will be at the poster session. We’ve put the poster on our website, along with Joe Bourg’s more detailed presentation on the GAP analysis, from the workshop and webinar in June.