Who Pushes Community Solar Now? Utilities!

Sept. 30, 2014
Community solar projects are on the rise, driven by utilities interested in offering customers new options. Colorado is the leading state for new community solar projects, says a new study from SEPA. The average community solar program has 213 participants purchasing power from a 1-MW system.

The number of community solar projects has jumped by 64 percent in just the last 18 months, says a new study by the Solar Electric Power Association.

And leading the charge are, believe it or not, utilities.

Utilities have or are developing 87 percent of all community solar programs now online, 60 percent of active and planned community solar systems, and 96 percent of all active and planned community solar capacity in the US, says SEPA.

A community solar project (also called a solar garden) is generally a centrally located project or group of projects that community members participate in. They can purchase or lease shares in the project, without having any solar panels on their homes, and receive financial credits for participating.

“The average community solar program has 213 participants purchasing power from a 1 megawatt system which is 71 percent subscribed,” says the study.

Utilities are the leaders in this effort for good reason. Utilities can develop these projects without the need for legislation, says Becky Campbell, senior manager of research at SEPA. “There aren’t a lot of community solar programs led by community groups or third parties,” she says. Most community solar programs involve customer billing and bill credits, and utilities are best positioned to set them up, she says.

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Interestingly, co-ops are the main drivers behind community solar – accounting for 44 percent of all programs. That’s true even though they have the least amount of solar installed. They have little solar because they’re small and generally have low electric rates.

However, co-ops often see community solar as supporting their missions, says Campbell.

The leading state, in terms of community solar, is Colorado. “Of the 57 programs SEPA now tracks, 31 are in the eight states with community solar laws, and the remaining 26 are in states without such mandates. Colorado leads the nation with 11 community solar projects on line and another two in development,” says SEPA’s press release.

While community solar is still in the early stages, the utilities’ interest in it points to a general desire to change and offer new programs, says Mike Taylor, SEPA research director.

“Utilities are thinking of ways to innovate and offer new products and services. They’re thinking, ‘How do we stay engaged with customers when they have new choices?'” he says.

An executive summary of the report, “Expanding Solar Access Through Utility-Led Community Solar,  is available here.

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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