Community systems offer alternative avenues for solar growth
While walking on the roof of his church among 630 solar panels, Bishop Richard Howell Jr. realized that climate change is not the most pressing concern for his predominantly black community – even if it disproportionately harms the black and the poor.
“The violence we have, shootings, murders, COVID-19,” Howell said wearily. “They are trying to save families and right now nobody is really talking about global warming.”
However, his Shiloh Temple International Ministries in northern Minneapolis welcomed the opportunity to become one of many “community solar” providers emerging amid the rising demand for renewable energy in the United States.
They are larger than rooftop systems but smaller than utility complexes and are located on top of buildings or on abandoned factory sites and farms. Individuals or companies subscribe to energy shares that are fed into the grid and receive credits that reduce their electricity bills.
The model attracts people who cannot afford roof installations or who live where solar energy is inaccessible, such as tenants and owners of apartments without direct sunlight.
“We’re helping fight this climate war and bless families with lower costs,” Howell said.
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, there are nearly 1,600 community solar projects or “gardens” in operation nationwide. Most are in Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado, though 41 states and Washington, DC have at least one. Florida has relatively few, but they’re big enough to make the state a leading producer.
Together they generate around 3.4 gigawatts – enough for around 650,000 households – or around 3% of the country’s solar output. But within five years, more than 4.3 gigawatts should go online, says the Association of the Solar Energy Industry.
“We can have a cheaper, cleaner, and fairer system for everyone if we build smaller, local resources,” said Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a trade group.
However, it is unclear just how big the role of municipal solar power will be in the US transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
The Biden government is continuing a $ 15 million US Department of Energy initiative launched in 2019 to support its growth, particularly in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. The ministry announced in October a goal of providing the equivalent of 5 million households with community solar by 2025, saving consumers $ 1 billion.
But electricity regulation takes place at the state level, where interest groups argue about what constitutes communal solar energy and who should generate it.
The Solar Energy Industries Association says the label should only apply where private developers and not-for-profit cooperatives, not just utility companies, can operate solar gardens and feed electricity into the grid. The association says 19 states and Washington, DC have such guidelines.
Utility companies say too many actors could break down regulatory structures that ensure reliable electricity service. They warn of disasters like the deadly power outage in Texas last winter.
“There are many individual for-profit players trying to make money,” said Brandon Hofmeister, senior vice president, Consumers Energy. The Michigan utility is fighting against government bills that would allow solar operators without utilities.
Others say that the utilities simply elude the competition.
“What is really driving the rise of community solar is the free market,” said John Freeman, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, a trading group. “That saves money and promotes a cleaner environment.”
Community Solar kicked off in Minnesota after lawmakers put Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility company, into a program for other developers in 2013. It has more than 400 gardens – tops in the US – with nearly 500 pending applications.
Keith Dent and Noy Koumalasy, who are married, say subscribing to Shiloh Temple Garden cut their bills by an average of $ 98 a year.
“You generate your own electricity and save a little money,” said Dent, who installed several complexes for Cooperative Energy Futures, a local not-for-profit organization.
Xcel, which has to buy the electricity for the gardens, says the government formula for rating solar energy makes it too expensive. The cost, which will be shared among all of the utility’s customers, will essentially force non-subscribers to subsidize municipal solar systems, said spokesman Matthew Lindstrom.
Community solar supporters say Xcel’s claim ignores the savings from the lower distribution costs of the local gardens.
Under the Cooperative Energy Futures Gardens, there are 3,760 panels on a parking deck overlooking the Twins ballpark and a collection on a farm near Faribault, 50 miles south of Minneapolis.
Despite arguing about shutting down six acres from production, farmer Gerald Bauer supports the climate cause, saying leases of $ 1,200 per acre make municipal solar power a financial winner.
“Agriculture is nowhere near the income solar power generates,” he said, walking through rows of panels framed by corn fields.
A collaborative project for a communal roof in nearby Eden Prairie has twice as many potential subscribers as panels.
“There are people in the community who want to support clean energy in every possible way,” said Jennifer Hassebroek, suburb’s sustainability coordinator.
But municipal solar developers are facing a roadblock: Under state law, residents and businesses can only subscribe to facilities in their county or an adjacent county.
That means the densely populated Twin Cites have many potential subscribers but little space for gardens. Rural areas have a lot of space, but fewer consumers for the energy.
“Instead of spreading out across the state, we’ll be focusing on the counties that are adjacent to subscription demand,” said Reed Richerson, chief operating officer of Minneapolis-based US Solar Corp., which is building solar projects in half a dozen states.
A bill by State Representative Patty Acomb, a Democrat representing a suburban district of Twin Cities, would drop the “adjacent counties” rule.
But Xcel says this contradicts a fundamental solar principle: to produce energy close to where it is used.
Collective solar energy is billed because it makes renewable energy more readily available to households, especially those in need. But companies and public institutions with sustainability goals, such as schools and town halls, draw most of the power.
Some states are trying to change that.
New Mexico requires that at least 30% of the subscribers of any community solar project have a low income. Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon reserve energy shares for low- and middle-income residents. New York offers financial incentives for developers to recruit.
“There is still much work to be done to open access to the community solar market to marginalized people,” said Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor of public policy at Loyola University Chicago.
Community Solar is fighting in states without established systems.
Michigan has about a dozen projects, though Consumers Energy opened a 1,752-panel garden on an abandoned factory site in Cadillac this summer.
Conservative Republican Michele Hoitenga and progressive Democrat Rachel Hood support House Legislation to create a state-regulated program open to outside utilities.
Hoitenga says it would boost freedom and the economy without raising taxes. Hood emphasizes the climate benefits and equal access to renewable energies.
But their bills are rejected by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utilities. They would lead to “overproduction of energy … and ultimately to higher rates,” said DTE Energy spokesman Pete Ternes.
The outlook is better in states that are friendly to non-utility developers like New Jersey, Maine, and Illinois, said Rachel Goldstein of consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
It predicts a 140% increase in production capacity nationwide by 2026, although growth may depend on lifting barriers such as project size restrictions.
Community solar is unlikely to be able to compete with rooftop installations as quickly, if at all, let alone approach utility-scale operations, Goldstein said.
“It is not realistic to say that this will solve the climate crisis and everyone will become millionaires,” said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures. “But we can say you will have a better life, more affordable and cleaner.”
Follow John Flesher at https://twitter.com/johnflesher
Follow AP’s climate reporting at https://apnews.com/hub/climate.