How Utilities Can Harness the Power of Community Solar

May 6, 2015
Like microgrids, community solar (aka solar gardens) is growing in popularity as the U.S. comes to value clean and local energy. Here Tendril’s Chris Black offers insight into how community solar benefits both utilities and consumers.

Chris Black, Tendril

Like microgrids, community solar (aka solar gardens) is growing in popularity as the U.S. comes to value clean and local energy. Here Tendril’s Chris Black offers insight into how community solar benefits both utilities and consumers.

Two forces must converge to truly bring solar to the masses: consumers and their utilities.

Put these two forces together and solar becomes feasible for everyone. People living anywhere can join the solar market and enjoy a renewable, price-stable power source, while utilities can claim solar ownership amidst the private players now dominating the industry.

It sounds simple. And it can be, once consumers learn from their utilities what community solar is and what it can do for them, and when utilities become more adept at marketing and providing it.

Solar for the Masses

Solar PV installments are booming. Q3 2014 represented the second largest quarter ever for solar installations in the U.S., with an increase of 41 percent over Q3 2013.[1] Consumers continue to turn to private solar providers to outfit their homes. Doing so brings pride in going green, reduces their environmental impact, sets their homes apart from their non-solar neighbors, and puts them on the path to long-term return on their clean energy investment.

There’s a catch, though. Rooftop solar may be popular, but in reality its market is extremely limited. Only a fraction of U.S. rooftops can support solar panels. A study by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that as little as 22 – 27 percent of residential rooftop area is suitable for hosting an on-site PV system. Those hitting barriers to solar adoption include potential customers whose roofs don’t have the right pitch, don’t face the right direction, or have too much shading; people living in apartments, renters, or residents planning to move before they could see a pay-off from traditional rooftop solar. These barriers of entry mean that while solar adoption is experiencing hockey stick growth; it is a fraction of what it could be if the rest of the community could be unlocked. This is where community solar shines.

Few of these consumers excluded from rooftop PV realize that they can still benefit from solar energy through community solar. They don’t know about community solar because they likely haven’t heard about it from their utilities, which are their primary sources for energy-related information. It’s up to utilities to engage their customers around community solar—to show them how they can integrate it, to explain why they should use it, and to make community solar feel like as much of a personal investment as rooftop PV.

Utilities win with personalized engagement around community solar

To expand into the largely untapped market of community solar, utilities need to better engage their customers. First, they need the right set of technologies to market community solar as a viable option. Secondly, once customers are signed on, they need to present these customers with data about “their” panels alongside regular consumption data. Delivering information about the panels as if they’re on the customers’ roofs, as opposed to in unattached open fields, gives participants the same sense of ownership over their decision to be green as they would feel with rooftop solar. As an example, it is definitely engaging to see how much a person with rooftop solar is generating at any given time. I have certainly heard “Woohoo – record producing day!” a number of times around the office. Now imagine the scenario of a person seeing their home energy consumption overlaid so that they can align their consumption to their generation. It’s cool enough when the panels are sitting on their roof, but it’s especially cool for someone to see that same information from their panels sitting in a farm a hundred miles away. Now that is engaging.

Utilities will also find greater success with community solar if they incorporate it as part of a greater solar-as-a-service offering. Community solar is one choice within the solar market, and, with the right technology, utilities can help consumers determine which solar choice is best for them. Utilities provide the information and tools consumers need to weigh their options, opt in to those options, change services if living situations demand it, and, if needed, opt out.

Delivering community solar within a broader solar-as-a-service category requires individualized, tailored consumer messaging. Those participating in solar-as-a-service projects must understand the benefits they’re receiving in terms of choice, insight and control:

  • Choice: Consumers living in structures unfit for rooftop panels, renting apartments or otherwise restricted from rooftop PV (which utilities would determine through data aggregation) become aware of the community solar option. They hear through proactive communication from their utilities that it’s possible to still have a stake in the solar market, to contribute to sustainability, to be on the cutting edge of renewable integration and to save money in the process.
  • Insight: Consumers see detailed breakdowns of their consumption habits more frequently than through their monthly bills. Through web portals, emails, text messages or their chosen channels, they receive information on how their energy use compares from month to month, including how much of what they’re using is renewable. They can know exactly how their investment in solar is contributing to the environment, changing their costs and perhaps influencing their consumption habits.
  • Control: Consumers can control where their energy comes from. Being able to say how much of their power they want to come from renewables and how much from other sources lets consumers create the automated, responsive, sustainable homes they desire at rates they can afford.

When utilities engage consumers in community solar through individualized messages of choice, insight and control, they fortify essential customer relationships.

Utilities already have a unique understanding of energy consumers, along with expertise in managing complex grid assets, positioning them as the best providers of community solar. If they leverage these strengths to develop compelling, consumer-friendly community solar solutions for the vast majority of their customers, they can pull ahead of the massive transformation happening in the energy industry.

Utilities win in solar when their own community solar projects serve to keep existing customers satisfied—an advantage already realized by utilities that have made inroads in this growing area. For example, Arizona Public Service (APS) has seen great success with its Community Power Project-Flagstaff Pilot. The project produces 1.5 MW of distributed solar power by combining the generation of rooftop panels located in the surrounding area. One installation is at an elementary school, which accounts for one-third of the energy, while 125 residential rooftop installations provide another one-third. The rest comes from a neighborhood-scale solar power plant. Residential and commercial customers that lend their rooftops for the panels (which APS owns and maintains) receive special rates on their energy bills. Additionally, Fort Collins Utilities in Colorado experienced heightened customer interest first hand as it moved to integrate community solar: consumer demand led it to double the initial planned capacity for the solar array it’s building in partnership with Clean Energy Collective. Furthermore, in the week the utility broke ground on the array, 88 percent of the panels had already been subscribed to.

Most importantly, by offering community solar, especially as part of a larger solar-as-a-service model, utilities show that they are listening. They’re tuned in to consumer demand, and they’re eager and ready to meet it for all of their customers. Bringing to consumers the possibility of community solar makes utilities not only the energy leaders of the past, but also the trusted energy advisors of the present and future.

[1] Retrieved April 16, 2015.

Chris Black is CTO/COO of Tendril.

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