Helping solar roofs could go the way of community gardens

By Daniel Cusick | 02/09/2016 08:35 AM EST

A new national trade group says it wants to improve access to community solar projects, also known as “solar gardens,” for millions of Americans who face economic and institutional barriers to acquiring clean energy.

A new national trade group says it wants to improve access to community solar projects, also known as "solar gardens," for millions of Americans who face economic and institutional barriers to acquiring clean energy.

The Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA), founded by six solar firms — including industry leaders First Solar Inc., Recurrent Energy LLC and the Clean Energy Collective — says it will help tap pent-up demand for distributed solar energy by residents and business owners who have watched the clean energy revolution occur at an unreachable distance.

"We’ve all seen the hockey stick curves for solar growth over the last several years, and it’s a very exciting trend to watch," Jeff Cramer, executive director of the newly launched group, said in a telephone interview.


But too much of that growth has been "limited to a select class of consumers," Cramer added. That is, people who own their homes or commercial buildings, those who have optimal rooftop insolation rates, and those who have the knowledge and means to purchase or lease a photovoltaic solar system.

Federal estimates suggest that 50 percent of the U.S. population is currently excluded from using solar energy because they lack the means to access the sun’s energy.

"This is really about access," Cramer said. "It’s about meeting consumer demand and providing a solar solution to customers who don’t have that option today."

Community solar differs from other types of solar development because it relies on a collective ownership model whereby individuals buy shares in a solar project that is built and operated by a third party, often at a remote site. The shareholders then receive credits on their power bills proportionate to their ownership stake in the array.

The arrangement — which shares similar attributes to a community vegetable garden, hence "solar gardens" — allows homeowners, renters and businesses to reap the benefits of clean energy even if they cannot generate on-site solar power due to rooftop space constraints, shading or building ownership issues, experts say.

Fourteen states currently have government policies to promote community solar, and solar gardens have been built in more than two dozen states, according to Energy Department data. But CCSA’s leaders say the community solar market is much larger than the estimated 100 megawatts of capacity currently installed across the United States.

Some experts have projected that community solar capacity could expand by 200 MW this year, and nearly double again by the end of 2017 to almost 600 MW. That still represents a fraction of total installed solar capacity nationwide, which exceeds 20,000 MW (20 gigawatts). But the concept has flourished in a few states such as Colorado and is gaining momentum from Connecticut and New York to Illinois, Minnesota and beyond, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory data released last October.

Last July, the Obama administration launched the National Community Solar Partnership with the purpose of expanding solar power access for low- and moderate-income households. Among the partnership’s specific goals is installing 300 MW of clean energy in federally subsidized housing and providing technical assistance to make it easier for residents to install and use solar.

Hannah Masterjohn, director of policy and new markets for the Clean Energy Collective and the founding board chairwoman of CCSA, said companies like hers are fielding calls daily from home and business owners, municipal managers, elected officials, and utilities seeking information on how to construct and permit community solar gardens.

The trade group aims to be a national clearinghouse for information and answers to many of those questions. "It’s really a bandwidth issue. We know we can’t do it all ourselves," Masterjohn said. "As a coalition of experienced community solar providers, CCSA will be the go-to resource for those leaders to help them establish successful programs."

CCSA’s leaders also stressed that the group is not pushing community solar at the expense of utility-scale solar development, which has exploded in recent years, but rather seeks to work in conjunction with electric utilities and energy regulators on ways to better integrate community solar projects into electric transmission and distribution grids.

"This is not about competition, it’s about collaboration," Cramer said. "If you look at all of our member companies, all of them have a history of working hand in hand with utilities. We believe there’s plenty of opportunity to do this the right way."

The new coalition also enjoys the backing from other major solar trade groups, including the Solar Energy Industries Association and Solar Electric Power Association.

"The rapid growth of community solar projects across the country once again underlines the intense customer and utility interest in putting more solar on the grid in ways that benefit all stakeholders," SEPA President and CEO Julia Hamm said in a statement. "Equally important, companies are stepping up to work together, which should further advance the spread of these projects and the innovative technology and business models being developed alongside them."

Click here to visit the Coalition for Community Solar Access’ website.