D.C.’s first community solar project hopes to inspire others

By Ben Delman on April 26, 2017

Last December marked the completion of Washington, D.C.’s first community solar project. It sits on three D.C. commercial buildings and produces a combined 180 kW of total installed capacity. The law firm Nixon Peabody spearheaded the project. In doing so, the firm demonstrates how community solar is rapidly expanding the places where solar can be installed and who can benefit from it.

The firm’s search for new office space sparked the project. It sought to find a space that would fit its budget, but that would also meet the firm’s environmental criteria as well. The space it opted for had a particularly large south facing roof space, room enough for solar panels. The firm negotiated the right to have solar installed on the roof as part of the lease agreement with the building owner, Brookfield Office Properties.

“I thought we’d do a traditional Power Purchase Agreement,” said Jeffrey Lesk of Nixon Peabody. “I didn’t think we’d be in the solar development business.” The Power Purchase Agreement model would have meant that a third-party would have owned the system and sold the electricity it generated back to the firm. This would mean the system would come at no cost to the firm.

That changed when the firm began researching the District’s community solar law. This law enables District utility customers to credit electricity that is generated from an off-site solar system on their electric bill. The firm realized it could build a financing model that would allow it to develop the array and pay for it through the sale of renewable energy credits and a loan. The issue was that their building’s roof was only large enough for a 55 kW system. A system of this size would be difficult to finance.

Undeterred, the firm worked with the building owner to find additional roof space. Brookfield was able to offer two additional locations with suitable roofs. This enabled the project to scale in size and receive a favorable financing offer.

In many ways, Nixon Peabody was an ideal firm to take on this project. A big piece of the firm’s practice is in the renewable energy space. This meant it had staff on hand that could work through the complicated details of bringing the project to fruition.

In addition to its energy work, the firm also works with affordable housing developers. This work inspired the firm to provide the energy generated by the system to residents at two D.C. low-income housing facilities. In all, about 100 District residents will have their monthly bills cut by $20/month. This was only made possible because of the community solar law.

The firm partnered with National Housing Trust to sign up tenants to have the electricity generated from the system credited on tenants’ bills. The credits are designed to stay with the affordable housing units so that as tenants move out, the new tenant will be eligible to receive the credit.

Financing and the sale of RECs covered nearly the entire cost of the system. The firm secured a grant from the District Department of Energy and Environment to cover the rest of the cost. This enables them to provide the entire value of the system’s production to residents rather than having to charge for the electricity to recoup the cost of the system.

The system atop Nixon Peabody’s roof is designed to be a showcase to other firms and organizations that might consider using their roof space for solar. Lesk said he has reached out to other downtown tenants to encourage them to consider developing a similar solar project. “Community solar can be done in downtown D.C.,” Lesk said. “A rooftop is a terrible thing to waste.”