Big Solar: The Future of Community-Shared Solar Energy

In June, the Clean Energy Collective (CEC), a U.S. shared solar systems operator, launched a new initiative, the Community Solar Platform (CSP). Designed specifically for utility companies seeking to invest in community solar programs, this innovative tool will allow solar energy to play a greater role in the traditional power market, and will likely accelerate the adoption of solar power.

Community solar – also known as shared solar – refers to collective investment in a solar power generation facility. In a typical shared solar project, a community member purchases a “share” of a solar power installation operated by an outside entity. Because participating community members own a corresponding portion of the electricity produced by the facility, they receive tax credits, rebates, and other financial benefits, just as if the solar panels were on their own roofs. This is the guiding principle behind community solar projects: individuals get the perks that come with home-installed solar panels without actually having to purchase, install, and maintain those panels. Shared solar projects can range in scale from small rooftop arrays covering a few hundred square feet to much larger freestanding installations covering multiple acres.

Credit: Seattle City Light, powerlines.seattle.gov

A community solar installation in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood Credit: Seattle City Light, powerlines.seattle.gov

The Clean Energy Collective has a successful history with community solar projects. In fact, CEC’s platform has been behind more than 60% of successful shared solar agreements in the U.S. However, the company still constructs and operates all of its solar facilities in-house, which limits the group’s capacity. The Community Solar Platform will enable utilities to build and operate their own solar facilities under community solar agreements.

The CSP takes the form of a comprehensive set of software-based tools, tailor-made for each step of the shared solar process. The system includes contract language for community solar licensing agreements, tools for navigating tax credits and tax law, and technical expertise on a wide range of other topics. In short, as CEC’s founder and CEO states, the Community Solar Platform provides “end-to-end community solar program deployment” in one software suite.

One key component of the CSP is RemoteMeter, CEC’s own internal system software that the company is now licensing to utilities. RemoteMeter allows for easy monitoring and management of solar power facilities, and also provides an efficient way to handle on-bill energy credits, the key financial incentive to participating in a shared solar program.

Now that community-shared solar projects have been standardized by CEC’s software, utility companies can begin initiating projects at a more rapid pace. Combined with the resources and technical expertise that utility companies possess, the CSP will make the deployment of community solar projects more rapid and more efficient than ever. These new tools bring the standardized and industrial efficiency of conventional power projects to the field of solar energy, making solar power less removed from the existing energy economy.

Community solar offers numerous benefits to neighborhoods, communities, and municipalities. For one, community solar projects greatly expand the viability of local solar power. Only one in four homes is suitable for on-site rooftop solar panels, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report. In a community solar program, all participating homeowners get access to the electricity produced, regardless of whether their own homes would be able to support such a project. In many cases, the community solar model also results in lower upfront costs for participants. Finally, the construction and maintenance of solar facilities often creates jobs and supports the local economy.

Despite these benefits, community solar has remained a relatively scattered phenomenon, with projects few and far between – there are currently only 50 programs nationwide. However, CEC’s Community Solar Platform is poised to revamp solar energy across the nation. Although only time will tell how successful utility companies are in the field of shared solar, the market-oriented standardization embodied by CSP will certainly pave the way for bigger and better community solar projects across the country in years to come.

 

 

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