The first generation of community solar has actually created more access to solar energy in the United States. Through innovative subscription programs and policies, the community offers solar energy to many residential customers, including tenants, those living in multi-family residential buildings, and those without a suitable roof to use solar energy, to access clean energy and reduce the energy burden. With new and expanded programs from New Mexico to New York to Washington, the community is accelerating for solar energy.
But the community has the potential to do more with solar energy. Additional innovation, creativity, and integrated planning can enable states and local governments to use community solar energy to meet their ambitious climate action goals more strategically and fairly. In our new report, Community Solar +: How a New Community Solar Generation Can Unlock New Value Streams and Help Communities Implement Unified Decarbonization, RMI presents our review for Community Solar + (CS +): Community Solar Projects Intentionally Planned and Strategically Implemented to Cover Additions pursue the goals of value flow and sustainability and equality at the community level.
Welcome to the world of Community Solar +.
“Sometimes a problem cannot be solved, not because it is too big, but because it is so narrow that its borders do not cover the options, degrees of freedom and synergies needed to solve it. CS + aims to fix this by expanding borders. ” —Amori Lovins | RMI Co-Founder and Honorary Chairman
Ensuring a Integrated Systematic Approach to Sustainability at the Community Scale
In addition to access to clean energy, community solar projects have the potential to bring more benefits to communities. Our report highlights six value streams that, when developed and implemented in tandem with a community solar project, turn it into a CS + project:
Accelerate investment in electricity recharging infrastructure Increase energy sustainability for critical assets and vulnerable communities Adapting emerging networks and customer needs for an electrified future Creating a fairer energy system Ensuring indoor parking and weather protection Reducing the impact of urban heating island
The innovation here is twofold: 1) CS + can strategically add value to achieve community-wide climate and equality goals, and 2) CS + aims to expand local solar power in population centers. These elements directly reinforce each other.
By creating and acquiring added value, CS + project managers can more strategically finance and develop projects in community centers where land is scarce and electricity demand is usually highest. Similarly, by scaling up in population centers, projects can create and achieve value-added and economic efficiency that smaller urban projects cannot.
Community Solar + Active
This approach is not only theoretical. Our report highlights four examples from three cities covering CS + approaches: Denver, San Antonio, and Washington, DC.
In December 2021, the Denver City Council approved funding for Phase 1 of the Renewed Denver Initiative – approximately 4.6 MW of community solar power installed on municipal roofs, parking lots and vacant lots. Solar energy will be distributed among cities and residents – at least 20 percent of the energy generated by solar arrays will be allocated to affordable housing and low-income residents to help ease the energy burden.
This project is moving forward to create community assets. Solar-powered parking covers will offer the public open, free home charging and indoor parking. Communities will also have direct access to staff training and education linked to the schools where the projects are located. In this way, given the scale of Denver, it increases the total project cost for the community – the total capacity of the next project phase is expected to reach 15 MW.
“This initiative is an opportunity to improve our climate, reduce the effects of climate change and invest in our society… and is a way to help residents reduce electricity bills by leading climate issues… [and] be located in conjunction with electric car charging stations that are accessible to the public. —Michael Hancock | Mayor of Denver
In 2019, the Pepco Resiliency Center in Washington, D.C., installed 62.4 kW of community solar power combined with storage, micro-network and generator capabilities. It offers cost savings, clean energy and energy sustainability for this multi-family, affordable residential complex. Housing builder Jubilee Housing worked on the city’s Solar For All initiative to bring clean energy to the community, emphasizing the added value of having backup power in an area facing power outages due to hurricanes, snow and ice and other events. The project provides up to three days of backup power for critical loads on stairs and corridors, including lights, refrigerators for food and medicine, several outlets for medical equipment and mobile phones, water pumps and floor fans. In addition, it creates a fundamentally fairer energy system by reducing the energy burden on residents.
“Sustainability is especially important for sensitive communities that are already experiencing great uncertainty in the course of their lives.” -Jim Knight | President and CEO of the Jubilee House
Finally, two other projects highlight the added value of placing CS + projects in public and private parking facilities. In 2020, both the Washington Transit Agency and the City of San Antonio signed a contract for community solar projects to help implement communal-scale community solar projects. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration (WMATA) has announced that it will partner with SunPower Corporation and Goldman Sachs Renewable Power LLC to install 12.8 MW solar umbrellas in parking lots and garages. Leasing land for solar power at WMATA-owned facilities has enabled the transit agency to generate about $ 50 million in new revenue by 2047 to support WMATA’s transit operations, while also providing indoor parking for hundreds of transit drivers each day. About 1,500 DC and Maryland households served by the Pepco utility will soon be able to subscribe to the electricity generated by the project.
Similarly, CPS Energy, a municipal utility in San Antonio, contracted with Big Energy Solar to generate 5 MW of community solar energy in 12 locations. Through the program, between 500 and 600 utility customers will receive panels from Big Sun Solar and receive a fixed-interest production loan for electricity. The Big Sun Community Solar project combined value-added by designing systems to be ready to fill homes and generating new revenue from indoor parking in private parking lots.
“In my community, traditional community solar models are still unaffordable for most households due to cost. With Big Sun Solar, we have expanded the value pool of generational assets. Indoor parking in central Texas makes sense because people value the shade. Additional capital for the construction of parking lots is compensated by income from closed and protected parking. ” -Jason Pittman | President, Big Sun Solar
How States, Municipalities and Utilities Community Solar + can be adopted
The US Department of Energy has set a goal of providing 5 million homes with solar energy by 2025, an increase of more than 700 percent over the next four years. Our report offers numerous recommendations and resources to help states, local governments, and utilities transform these community solar projects into CS + projects.
In addition to defining market conditions that will provide and accelerate the community’s solar energy, heads of state can create programs that openly stimulate the inflow of value-added and enable low-income residents to participate in and access benefits such as the Massachusetts SMART program.
Local leaders can effectively plan and structure projects to ensure flexibility in design. These include simplifying permits for solar energy projects, socializing market opportunities to stimulate local innovation, reassessing the value they can use of both public and private parking facilities, and acting as an anchor or provider for community solar projects. increase the scale and reduce the risks for the project developer.
Utilities By integrating CS + into their business models, they can further support their customers and build projects for success by socializing market opportunities to promote local innovation and designing systems to simplify compliance, payment and subscription changes.
Finally, our challenge for both the public and private sectors is to expand the boundaries of solar projects. Think about your broader goals, such as electrifying your car fleet, expanding local resilience, and reducing heat. Or think creatively about your local “assets” and the types of sites that can benefit from the creative use of solar energy.
Given the challenges of implementing a fair energy transition in the context of a climate crisis, CS + provides value-added flows that benefit both society and the network – promoting a more electrified, sustainable and equitable future.
The next generation of community solar energy is here. It’s time to adopt the Community Solar + program.
For more information on community solar energy, see the full Community Solar + report here and our resource portal CityRenewables.org.
Matthew Popkin, Madeline Tyson
© 2021 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally published in the RMI Outlet.
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