Community Solar Power: 2016 Energy Trend

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solar energy arrays

Community solar arrays can provide power to groups of homeowners unable to invest in solar power individually. Where is this trend going, this year and beyond?

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I like to start the year off wondering what it has in store for us. It’s not like things magically changed on January 1st. It’s about a build-up over months or years. Then the trends begin to materialize. A chain of events and the needs to be filled come to a head to guide us into the future.

This piece from Utilitydive.com talks about five energy trends expected to pan out over the next year. I am dealing with some of this at home; excessive fixed rate hikes, and low net metering caps that are holding the renewable energy industry back.

But a little blip in this article talks about community solar and the policy changes it will need to bloom. This grabbed my interest.

What is community solar?

Community solar is a small array built to provide renewable energy to the grid and a small group of customers. The size depends on how much land is available and suitable, and how many homes need to be serviced. It’s a juggling act to find the right balance.

Customers pay a buy-in fee, which pays for the installation. The energy generated goes into the grid, and customers receive a solar credit on their regular electric bill based on their power usage.

Benefits to customers

A solar array servicing a small area makes solar power accessible to those who wouldn’t normally be able to have it. A home may have poor orientation or too much shade. A homeowner may not want panels on the roof or in the yard, but would like to support renewable energy. Renters, condo owners, businesses, and municipalities can even buy into community solar.

There is no construction or site work at the home. Community solar is no hassle, no maintenance, and no responsibilities for its customers. They are not even aware of it, until they see their discounted bill.

The obvious benefit for everyone is less dependence on fossil fuels and fewer CO2 emissions.

solar energy panel neighborhood

Community solar energy: catch 22

The price of installing solar has dropped considerably over the last few years, making it affordable for most homeowners. Large arrays are even less costly than panels on individual buildings. Tax credits and incentives further reduce the expense, and those savings are passed on to the consumer.

Affordability and the spreading awareness that fossil fuels pollute the ground, water, and air have made renewables appealing to a larger audience.

So what’s the problem? There are several.

1) There are caps placed on how much renewable energy is allowed to be in the grid. This number is different for every utility, but it’s not very high, considering the demand for it. I have seen caps between 5-15%.

In some areas, the net metering caps are being reached, meaning no new renewable energy systems can be installed and tied to the grid. This would bring the industry to a stand still.

2) In the same vein, utilities need to embrace solar as a profitable energy source. They are so threatened by it taking away business that they enforce these low net-metering caps. They also discourage renewable energy with higher charges for users.

3) Tax credits are expiring at the end of 2016. They make energy efficiency appealing and affordable for many homeowners, but they apply to community solar, too. This coming year will a busy one for the industry as solar installers rush to get systems planned, approved, and built before the tax credits expire.

Energy policy changes to be made

To keep the US on a solar pathway, net-metering caps need to be removed, utilities need to embrace solar as a viable and profitable energy source, and tax credits need to be extended.

Renewables need to have a larger share of the grid. Renewable energy should be available to everyone, and utilities and policy makers need to support community solar beyond 2016.

Your thoughts on community solar energy?

What’s your impression of the community solar energy model?

What do you see as the key advantages?

What are the barriers to making it work?

Tell us all about it in the comments section of this post.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.