A CSA for Solar Energy: Community Solar Farms Take Root Nationwide

Amber Plante for Zondits, July 22, 2015. Image credit: Jchantraine

It’s almost universally agreed that solar energy is a great resource, but unless you have a perfect easterly view and a spare $25,000 lying around, you’re unlikely to install a photovoltaic (PV) solar array on your home’s roof. But what if you didn’t have to drop all that cash on a PV system to gain the benefits? For many areas throughout the country, community solar power is the answer.

First, the background: When you, a residential buyer of normal electrical power from the local utility’s grid, install solar panels, you aren’t actually using the sun’s rays to light your house or warm your water. You are actually gathering the solar power, storing it in a battery, and selling it back to the utility so that the power can be used as part of the larger grid. The lower bills that result from the PV installation reflect your normal utility bill minus the fee that the utility has paid you for the solar power. In simple terms, solar panels make your meter run backwards.

Community solar works the same way, only through a slightly different, infinitely more convenient medium. Instead of installing a PV system that could take up to 20 years to pay for itself, thus rendering you in debt, community solar arrays (or farms) allow you to invest with others in your community in the installation of a much larger solar farm that will generate a lot more power that can then be sold back to the utilities.

Under new legislation making its way across the country, these solar arrays will allow for many users to be hooked up to many meters on the farm to take advantage of the power being generated and sold back to the utility. According to DeSmogBlog.com, “There are more than 50 community renewable energy projects currently operating in 17 states . . . states that have specifically adopted community solar laws include California, Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington state, and Washington, D.C.” Maryland is the most recent to join the club in passing bills aimed at creating community solar projects and embracing clean energy.

In New Hampshire, solar energy is catching on. Andrew Kellar, who founded Simply Green, has branched out to build the New Hampshire Solar Garden, an entrepreneurial solar farm with lofty goals. According to the Portsmouth Herald, there is no cost for membership and the members will get solar rebates twice per year while supporting the local farmers who leased their land for the panel installations. Think of it as a CSA for solar energy.

In Massachusetts, the Virtual Net Energy Metering law allows consumers to buy into solar farms by paying for the solar panels and getting the profits from those panels when the energy they generate is sold back to the investor-owned utilities (IOUs). The law requires the IOUs – such as National Grid and NSTAR – to reduce the panel-owners’ bill commensurate with the amount of solar energy that they are sending back to the grid.

Although community solar programs don’t carry the hefty price tag of installing your own PV array, there are still costs associated with participation. Most programs, such as the one affiliated with the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) in Florida, require an initial deposit of around $50. Customers then pay a monthly fee to subscribe for a set contract length (typically a few years) to, in essence, lease the solar panels. The OUC’s subscription rate is 13¢ per kWh, a fixed rate for the life of the contract. A 1 kW block of PV panels will produce about 112 kWh per month; thus the customer cost would be approximately $14.56 per month. If the panels reap enough energy to more than cover the complete cost of your normal utility bill, you are cut a check. If not, you pay your normal subscription fee and hope the next month is sunnier.

The first step for interested parties is to contact your state representative to see if there is solar array legislation pending in your state. Then, research any solar farms popping up to take advantage of this new trend in community-generated power.