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January 13, 2022

Part I: NREL helps drive community solar deployment in latest partnership with DOE

By Elana Knopp, Senior Content Writer

In this first of a two-part series, Edison Energy sat down with Jenny Heeter, Senior Energy Analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), to discuss the national push to ramp up access to affordable community solar.

Part I

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced a new National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) target to enable community solar systems to power the equivalent of five million households by 2025 and create $1 billion in energy bill savings.

The NCSP is a DOE initiative led by the Solar Energy Technologies Office, in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The partnership includes a coalition of community solar stakeholders including state, local and Tribal governments, solar developers, and community-based organizations, who are working to expand access to affordable community solar.

The new target represents a 700 percent increase in community solar deployment, growing from 3 GW of community solar in 2020 to 20 GW in 2025 and bringing the nation closer to achieving the Biden administration’s goals of achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2035.

The bold target is being driven by a recently released Solar Futures Study report from DOE and NREL, which reveals how solar can play a major role in a decarbonized grid.

While there is enough solar installed to power 19 million households across the U.S., many still cannot access affordable solar power including renters, homeowners who lack affordable financing options, and those without suitable roof conditions.

“Community solar is designed to address a lot of those barriers,” said Jenny Heeter, Senior Energy Analyst at NREL. “It also provides an option for folks who may be more transient, so if you think about renters who may move every couple of years, they don’t have access to their roof. But even if they did, they probably wouldn’t put PV on it because they would not get a return on their investment before they left. Those types of barriers are ones that the community solar market is trying to solve.”

Community solar is a form of energy generation where members subscribe to a portion of a solar array, usually located near their community. As the solar array produces energy, subscribers receive a portion of the revenue from the energy produced, typically as savings on their monthly electric bill — a critical factor for low-income and disadvantaged communities whose energy burden is three times higher than for non-low-income households.

The Sharing the Sun report, released by NREL in collaboration with NCSP, shows that community solar can lead to bill savings of between five and 25 percent. Achieving $1 billion in cost savings would mean that, on average, community solar projects would provide a 20 percent bill savings.

Solar drivers

Cumulative community solar capacity has more than doubled year-over-year since 2010, with about 72 percent of capacity in just four states–Minnesota, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York. As of 2020, five States—Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Florida, and New York–had the most community solar capacity installed and in the pipeline. Several states, including Maryland, Oregon, New Hampshire, Illinois, and Hawaii, are implementing state-level community solar programs to increase the markets in their states.

To date, 21 states and Washington, DC have passed some form of legislation enabling community solar, either through state-required programs or the authorization of a limited number of pilot projects, according to NREL. While these programs vary in scope, they generally all allow for some form of virtual metering that enables subscribers to benefit from their community solar subscriptions.

“Every state does community solar differently and we track that policy environment and the related projects that are deployed,” Heeter said. “We see from our current data that in states with supportive policies and rate compensation mechanisms, there is more deployment, so there’s a connection between that policy and compensation framework that leads to deployment. We see Minnesota as the leader and it certainly is not the state with the most technical potential for solar, so it definitely is driven by state regulatory environments.”

Stay tuned for the second part of the series! Check out additional conversations with leading experts from across the industry in our Visionary Voices: Perspectives in Energy Series.