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Cooperatively Solar - community solar systems

Cooperatively Solar
By Rolf Priesnitz

If you can't afford to go solar yourself, or don't have the appropriate property, working cooperatively with others in your community can be an alternative.

Not everyone can easily benefit from solar. You might rent a house where the landlord won’t let you put solar panels on the roof, or an apartment where that’s also impossible. You might be a homeowner with a roof that faces the wrong direction, is shaded by trees or other buildings, or is structurally unsuitable for mounting solar panels. Or you might own a small business that leases its space. Your location could also be affected by restrictive zoning bylaws or other local rules. Or you just might find the cost prohibitive.

You could buy green energy from one of the growing number of third party providers. But you might also be able to own some solar panels by working cooperatively with others.

Some cooperatives pool the purchasing power of a group of homeowners or farmers, allowing them to install PV systems on their roofs or in a field more economically, while also tapping into legal, siting, installation, and operational expertise they wouldn’t otherwise have readily available. Others, called solar farms or gardens, are a larger-scale, centralized collection of solar arrays organized by a third-party that sells shares to customers.

Either way, there are benefits to the local economies, as well as to individuals. These include boosting the local economy by making sure the profits stay in the area, and, for the larger scale projects, encouraging visitors and raising the local area’s profile. And although rooftop solar is preferable from an environmental perspective, for those who can’t utilize it, these larger localized solar power stations reduce the need for additional transmission infrastructure by providing the energy close to the point of use.
Starting A Community Solar Project

Organizing a community solar project is part community organizing, part project development and marketing, and part politics. Here are some suggestions, partly based on the experiences of Colorado’s Solar Gardens Institute, and the founders of Ontario’s WISE and DWSEP community solar power buying groups.

Organize: Hold/attend community meetings, recruit early adopters. Partner with a local non-profit that already has people working together, as well as infrastructure. These might be residents’ associations, church groups, or schools/parent-teacher organizations.

Identify grants and get to know vendors for the project: Ones sympathetic to the concept of community power will be easier to work with as the project develops. Identify applicable grants, feed-in-tariff programs, etc., as well as the appropriate scale and best legal arrangement for your particular project. Consider working with your local utility to develop a solar garden/farm program.

Scout for host sites: Properties of one to twenty acres near substations or utility distribution lines and large roofs can serve as host sites for a solar farm.

Market: Use the local media and other community forums, as well as email lists and group newsletters to recruit subscribers; create a website. Consider recruiting businesses, non-profits, city governments, and other large power users to “anchor” a solar farm project. Find or educate elected representatives who will champion community solar and help develop friendly zoning rules.

Community energy schemes have been around for a long time in Europe. In Germany, twenty-five percent of all renewable energy is owned by community projects. A similar proportion is community-owned in Denmark, and both countries have a large share of renewable energy generation. For example, in Denmark almost each town or village has its own community-owned renewable energy project, including an 82 MW offshore wind farm that is cooperatively owned.

In North America, the residents of two Toronto, Ontario neighborhoods helped pioneer the homeowner solar cooperative concept in 2007 and 2008. Community solar buying groups called the West Toronto Initiative for Solar Energy (WISE) and the Downtown West Solar Energy Project (DWSEP) formed and attracted a great deal of media interest. Between the two projects, a few hundred people requested an evaluation of their homes to determine their suitability for solar power, and dozens of homes eventually sported solar PV systems or solar hot water systems, all purchased and installed at less than it would have cost if they'd gone it alone (and most wouldn't have even bothered).

In San Rafael, California, Cooperative Community Energy (CCEnergy) is a registered buyers’ co-op in which customers automatically become members. Co-op members are part owners of the company, giving them voices and votes in the direction and activities of this organization, not to mention the ability to purchase solar PV systems and installation at a discounted rate.

Canada’s largest solar coop is SolarShare in Toronto. It has over five hundred community members and is a project of Toronto Renewable Energy Coop, founded in 1998 as a non-profit community power co-operative. (TREC incubated and founded the WindShare Co-op and Ex-Place wind turbine, which began generating green wind power in 2003.) Located in an industrial area, SolarShare’s Goodmark project covers eighteen thousand square feet which houses thirty commercial businesses including a bakery, cabinet maker, and an importer of spices.

The first cooperative community solar installation in the UK is the recently launched Westmill Solar Park, located on the Oxfordshire/ Wiltshire border. (See photo at the top of this article.) With over fifteen hundred members, it generates enough power for fourteen hundred homes and claims to be the world’s largest community-owned solar park.

Westmill is one of the growing breed of larger scale community solar farms or “gardens.” These are large, grid-tied solar power installations that accept capital from and provide output credit and tax benefits to individual and other investors. They may be operated by companies, cooperatives, governments, or non-profits. In some systems, you buy individual solar panels, which are installed in the farm after your purchase. In others you purchase kW capacity or kWh of production. The farm’s power output is credited to subscribers/investors in proportion to their investment, with adjustments to reflect ongoing changes in capacity, technology, costs, and electricity rates. Depending on how the project is organized, you might be sent an annual payment, or your regular power bill might be credited for energy produced, receiving an equivalent amount of energy from the grid.

Such cooperative solutions are becoming big business with large solar manufacturers getting involved. In December, solar panel manufacturer First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) announced it has partnered with the Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective (CEC) to start offering solar solutions to consumers who might live in places where rooftop space isn’t possible. In fact, First Solar has purchased an equity stake in CEC, which currently has forty community solar projects with eighteen partners and approximately 36 MW of capacity.

Some projects are run by local municipal utilities. Florida’s Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) has a community solar farm that began producing power in October 2013. The municipal utility, which has over half of its customers living in multi-family housing, wanted a unique solution for those wanting to use solar power, but are unable to modify the homes they rent or lease. Thirteen hundred solar panels are generating up to four hundred kW of electricity. The panels are  mounted on three canopies, which have created a side benefit of one hundred and fifty covered LED-lit parking spaces over about two-and-a-half acres.

In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District runs a program called Solar Shares, which serves approximately onr thousand customers. Other utilities across the U.S. – from Arizona to Utah to Massachusetts – are building community solar arrays. It is important to note that this type of solar usage doesn’t necessarily reduce one’s utility costs. In fact, the Sacramento program adds about nine percent on average to customers’ bills.

Assistance is Available

If you want to organize your own neighborhood or community project, there is advice available from those who have gone before. And some projects are supported by various sorts of tax credits and net metering programs.

The Solar Gardens Institute in Colorado, a state which is said to lead the U.S. in community-owned solar capacity, organizes communities to go solar by pooling their resources. They encourage libraries and schools, churches and synagogues, businesses, and citizens to host distributed power plants, and offer workshops and conferences on the topic. They also advocate for community-based distributed energy at the federal, state, and local levels and maintain a national directory of community solar projects and organizations.

So even if you can’t have a solar installation on your own roof, you can still be part of the solar revolution via the fast growing phenomenon of community solar.

Learn More

Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects by Greg Pahl (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)

Guide to Community Solar: Utility, Private, and Non-profit Project Development by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (US Department of Energy, 2012)

Rolf Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's founding publisher and has worked for many years in the fields of construction and education.


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