Who Pushes Community Solar Now? Utilities!

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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.

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  2. […] found that the average community solar program has 213 participants, who purchase power from a one-megawatt system that is 71% subscribed. At the beginning of 2014, the average reported price for these systems was […]