7 Strategies for Cities to Maximize Benefits of Community Solar

By Tom Figel

Tom Figel is a policy and regulatory manager focused on community solar for nonprofit GRID Alternatives, a national leader in making clean, affordable solar power and solar jobs accessible to low-income communities and communities of color.

Oct 3, 2018 | Economy, Resources | 1 comment


Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


 

Cities are providing unprecedented leadership in the clean energy transition, using their purchasing power, ingenuity, and political leverage to advance renewable energy commitments and drive reduction in carbon emissions. As cities look for solutions to help meet their increasingly aggressive clean energy targets and support their local economies, community solar is a growing opportunity.

Community Solar – distributed solar projects shared virtually by a number of subscribers in a community, typically through on-bill credits – is one of the fastest growing segments of the solar industry. The model offers a tremendous opportunity to develop clean energy resources in a way that benefits a broad swath of the population. Nearly three quarters of U.S. households can’t put solar on their roof, either because they rent or live in multi-unit buildings, and the 50 million low-to-moderate income families (who are more likely to reside in rental and multi-tenant housing) may face additional barriers like access to financing. Community solar is a flexible model that can open solar access to these market segments. To date, 19 states have enacted community solar policies, 12 of which include targets to ensure participation by low-income households. A recent vision study from GTM Research projected that community solar could grow to from about one GW today to 84 GW by 2030, serving nearly nine million new solar customers, including four million low-to-moderate income households, and amounting to $120 billion in capital investment.

 

Localizing the Benefits

For cities, community solar is a way to vastly increase the amount of locally generated renewable energy, along with associated benefits of local jobs, property tax revenue, and local community investment. Other renewable energy strategies like purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), carbon trading and Virtual Power Purchase Agreements (VPPAs) may help cities meet their goals, but won’t drive investment and transition within communities or give cities a tool to address energy costs for low-income residents. Cities should keep community impact, investment, and equity in mind when choosing what to do with their energy purchasing power. Community solar scores high on all these counts.

 

Here are seven strategies cities can employ to maximize community benefit from community solar:

  1. Directly including community solar targets, including equity goals and low-income participation commitments within their clean energy goals and advocacy. This may involve pushing for policy changes, negotiations with utilities, complex regulatory proceedings and more, or supporting solar industry groups like Vote Solar and the Coalition for Community Solar Access to make sure community solar is available to their communities. See www.lowincomesolar.org/community-solar for models and policy recommendations.
  2. Providing low or no-cost city-controlled land and rooftops, even landfills, for community solar projects with strong community or low-income impact goals.
  3. Participating in projects financially as “anchor” subscribers, typically through a power purchase agreement.
  4. Including job training and local hire provisions in contracts and programs.
  5. Exempting or reducing costs for permitting community solar projects
  6. Directly supporting low-income resident participation through rebates or grants, or integrating community solar with city led low-income energy services. Setting targets for substantial energy bill reductions is also recommended.
  7. Serving as backstops or intermediary purchasers, developing loan loss reserves, or providing other innovative financing mechanisms to support participation of low-income residents.

 

Colorado and Texas Lead the Way

Colorado has the longest-standing community solar law on the books, so cities in that state are unsurprisingly leading the way on municipally-driven community solar. Among the best examples is Denver, where the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) has been a pioneer in community solar for multifamily affordable housing. In 2017, the housing authority developed a community solar project sited near the city that is serving a significant percentage of its affordable housing buildings and tenants, helping to reduce energy costs and providing revenue for increased tenant services, including a solar job training program. DHA plans to use community solar to serve their entire building stock; more than 11,000 units providing affordable housing to more than 26,000 very low, low and middle income individuals representing over 10,000 families and almost 15 MW of community solar capacity. The City of Denver is also working on an initiative to site a community solar project at its landfill, which will predominantly benefit low-income residents.

The City of Fort Collins sited one of the nation’s first low-income dedicated community solar projects. The array, sited on the rooftop of a municipal building, is being used to expand the impact of the city’s energy assistance program by providing community solar and complementary energy efficiency services to reduce energy burden for all-electric customers.  The City of Boulder is also supporting project siting by offering city rooftops and land for project development, subscribing to community solar projects as anchor finance partners, and offering solar rebates for low-income residents.

In Texas, Austin and San Antonio have been pioneering municipal utility-led community solar models. Austin’s municipal utility Austin Energy developed a 2.5 MW community solar project, dedicated this past March, with half of the project’s capacity dedicated to low-income residents through the utility’s bill assistance program. In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg has made solar a priority and the city’s utility, CPS Energy is developing multiple community solar arrays that offer direct subscriptions with on-bill credits to customers. Unlike Austin, San Antonio’s community solar program does not currently include low-income targets or incentives.

 

A Model for the Future

Washington D.C., although a relative newcomer, is one of the few cities that has fully integrated community solar into its 50 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The RPS legislation, signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2016, created the Solar for All program, which aims to cut electricity bills for 100,000 low-income residents in half by 2032. It also includes a city-wide solar job training program, Solar Works DC. The program’s ambitious goals will be met by a combination of single-family, multifamily and community solar, with much of the community solar to be sited on buildings within city limits. The city is providing incentives, siting support and grants as part of the effort, which is just getting underway.

Efforts like these that center local energy resources and economic development in a broader renewable energy goal are a model for cities of the future. They require enabling state and federal policy, local political will, community engagement and buy-in, and public and private dollars. The return on investment is substantial: an opportunity to support an equitable, sustainable clean energy transition within cities, inclusive of our most energy-burdened communities. Cities are already doubling down on their commitments to lead the clean energy transition. Community solar – solar in and for the benefit of the community – should be a central part of their strategy.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

1 Comment

  1. It is convenient to migrate from fossil energy to solar energy in conjunction with wind, since for countries like ours we would be more expensive with accumulators, the barrier to jump would be the same government and the traditional company in the sector.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.

Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.

And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”

So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.

Bleutech Park: Vegas’ New Eco Entertainment Park

Bleutech Park: Vegas’ New Eco Entertainment Park

I caught up with Steph Stoppenhagen from Black & Veatch the other day about their work on critical infrastructure in Las Vegas. In particular, we talked about the new Bleutech Park project which touts itself as an eco-entertainment park. They are deploying new technologies and materials to integrate water, energy, mobility, housing, and climate-smart solutions as they anticipate full-time residents and park visitors. Hear more from Steph about this new $7.5B high-tech biome in the desert.

Urban Simulation Tech Models Effects of Shared Mobility in Reducing Congestion

Urban Simulation Tech Models Effects of Shared Mobility in Reducing Congestion

Planning for new, shared modes of transit that will rival private vehicles in access and convenience requires a paradigm shift in the planning process. Rather than using traditional methods, we need to capture individual behavior while interacting with the systems in questions. An increasing number of studies show that combining agent-based simulation with activity-based travel demand modeling is a good approach. This approach creates a digital twin of the population of the city, with similar characteristics as their real-world counterparts. These synthetic individuals have activities to perform through the course of the day, and need to make mobility decisions to travel between activity locations. The entire transportation infrastructure of the city is replicated on a virtual platform that simulates real life scenarios. If individual behavior and the governing laws of the digital reality are accurately reproduced, large-scale mobility demand emerges from the bottom-up, reflecting the real-world incidences.

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This