In this last 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 role of utilities and stakeholder partnerships in the national push for access to affordable community solar. Click here to read the first part in the series.
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.
States with utilities who choose to initiate community solar programs continue to boast high rates of deployment.
“We have seen Florida and Arkansas develop large community solar projects that have been initiated by their utilities,” Heeter said. “Those utilities do not have to do community solar, but they have chosen to offer programs that have been supporting very large project sizes. Some folks may dispute whether those are really community solar projects since they are so large, but we count them because they meet our criteria of having a subscriber component to them and providing bill credits to folks, so we do see some different models.”
These models include a regulated model, in which a utility must either initiate a community solar program or offer virtual net metering. Other states have asked regulators to help drive community solar programming.
“These are states like Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York, or utilities in Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia going to their commissions and getting their approval for these programs that they want to offer to their customers for a variety of reasons,” Heeter said.
While the efficiency of community solar projects can be improved, Heeter says that the real barrier comes down to paying for it.
“How do we get the bill credit to consumers or how do we finance projects given that the subscribers may be low-income customers, or they may only be subscribing for a year and then rolling off?” she said. “The barriers are really around program design and on the financing and regulatory side.”
To reach the bold new community solar targets, the DOE is offering free, on-demand technical assistance to NCSP partnership members, which provides support to organizations deploying community solar to help them accelerate implementation, improve the performance of their program or project, and build capacity for future community solar development. NCSP has already distributed $1 million for technical assistance and hopes to provide $2 million in the next year.
The NCSP is working closely with the DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to align efforts on creating equitable access to community solar. This includes meeting the goals established in the Justice40 Initiative, which requires that 40 percent of overall benefits of certain federal investments—including investments in clean energy and energy efficiency—flow to disadvantaged communities.
The initiative will build on critical partnerships that DOE has with community stakeholders, Tribal nations, and communities of color, as well as historically Black colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions.
Partners will leverage peer networks as well as technical assistance funding and resources to overcome persistent barriers to expanding community solar access, with a focus on underserved communities. As of September 2021, NCSP had more than 650 members from over 440 partner organizations.
“What you see with community solar is this need for lots of different stakeholders to be involved because it’s the regulator who might be approving a program or approving particular projects for interconnection, or state utilities who might be creating or implementing a program that is passed down to them via legislation,” Heeter said. “We also see project developers who may be coming from the solar space but haven’t done community solar before, so there are some unique elements to community solar that those folks need to be aware of. It does touch a lot of different players to work out the rules, to get projects interconnected, and to make sure that projects are subscribed to. It’s really that whole ecosystem of folks that you need to have in order to be successful with deployment.”
To get the word out about community solar, more states are now engaging in education and outreach, particularly those states that are initiating community solar programs.
“Some states have also implemented consumer disclosure requirements for developers who are reaching out to customers to sign up, so making sure that customers know what they’re signing up for as far as expected savings.,” Heeter said. “We hear a lot about education that has been done on rooftop PV. I think there’s some connection between folks who are unable to get rooftop PV and now they are learning about community solar as an option for them. It’s education on a diversity of products if one doesn’t work.”
Check out additional conversations with leading experts from across the industry in our Visionary Voices: Perspectives in Energy Series.