Community solar conquers Pittsburgh shade

By Henry McKay on May 17, 2018

Solar United Neighbors of Pennsylvania Program Director recently published this blog on the Green Building Alliance website. You can read the original version here. This is part one of a two-part series.

Rooftop solar is growing across Western Pennsylvania, with Allegheny County now boasting the second-highest number of solar installations in the state at almost 1,800, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. Once considered a specialty product, solar is becoming a decidedly mainstream investment—even in a cloudy state like ours.

While there’s plenty of untapped solar-ready roof space in Pennsylvania, there will always be many people for whom traditional rooftop solar is not an option. Perhaps they rent their home or apartment. Maybe their roof is too shaded or facing the wrong way. Or maybe they simply can’t afford it.

How can the benefits of solar be enjoyed by everyone?

Enter community solar. Rather than customers buying or leasing solar panels and placing them on their own roofs, customers instead buy or lease a portion of a larger solar installation located somewhere else. The energy produced by the larger installation flows out onto the wider grid. The customers who bought into the solar installation, often referred to as subscribers, then earn credits on their electric bill according to the size of their investment.

Just as rooftop solar customers earn credits on their electric bill according to the amount of solar they produce via net metering, community solar subscribers earn their credits via virtual net metering. Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, our state does not require utilities to allow the kind of virtual net metering that would make community solar possible—yet.

Solar advocates and community activists are working together to bring community solar to the Keystone state. The policy-making process will be the subject of part two in this series.

Community solar offers a host of benefits, including:

  • Greater access to solar: Community solar broadens access to the financial benefits of solar energy and allows more Pennsylvanians the freedom to choose how and where their electricity is produced.
  • Lower cost: Larger installations are cheaper to build on a per-watt basis, making community solar a more affordable way to buy solar energy.
  • Energy equity: By lowering costs and opening the solar market to renters, community solar can bring more low- and moderate-income households into the solar economy. These households are more likely to pay a higher percentage of their income toward energy costs, meaning they stand to gain greatly from energy savings.
  • Community control of energy projects: True community solar—that which provides clear financial benefits and control to community participants and stakeholders—puts decisions about our energy system and land use into the hands of community members.
  • Increased grid resilience: Because community solar projects can be smaller than utility-scale solar projects, and because they create no noise or air pollution, they can be located much closer to electric customers. By creating more distributed energy and placing energy generation closer to where it is used, community solar lessens wear and tear on the grid and increases its resilience. A more resilient, distributed grid reduces the need for expensive grid maintenance and upgrades, saving all ratepayers money.
  • Productive use for vacant land and brownfields: Community solar installations can be located on existing vacant land or brownfields—two things we have no shortage of in Western Pennsylvania.
  • Stable revenue source for farmers: Community solar gives farmers a reliable source of revenue and an opportunity to diversify their portfolio by growing clean energy alongside crops. Pollinator-friendly plants can be grown under and between solar panels, which not only offer benefits to nearby crops but can also be used to market unique agricultural products. Ever hear of solar honey or solar honey beer?

We can look to other states for a model of what community solar looks like in practice. Minnesota has a community solar program that launched in December 2014, already comprised of hundreds of operational megawatts, with many more in the pipeline. One project example is the Waseca Community Solar Garden (Waseca CSG), a 1300kW project operated by Cooperative Energy Futures located near Janesville, MN. The Waseca CSG has pledged to offer subscribers a transparent and fair contract without excessive fees. The project has also committed to lowering barriers to participation by making solar available to those with poor credit and offering more affordable pay-as-you-go subscription models, as opposed to requiring all customers to make a large up-front expenditure.

Projects such as these are only possible with the right legislation, and the devil is indeed in the details. Simply allowing virtual net metering is not enough. For true community solar that’s a sound investment for customers, transparent, and beneficial to the broader community, states must explicitly enshrine these values into law.

In part two of this series, we’ll further explore how Pennsylvania can learn from other states to craft its own community solar program.