Over the past several years a new policy trend has quickly grown from fringe outlier to mainstream movement. Shared renewables (aka community renewables) programs allow electric customers to participate in a common, shared system and, in return, receive credit on their energy bills for their share of the generation. This model carries a number of benefits – it can make the most of siting potential in an area, it provides renewable energy access to the majority of American who are renters or otherwise cannot host an onsite system, and it can facilitate participation in small increments, thereby becoming more attainable for low-income customers to participate. These exciting programs should be treated as additive to – rather than a replacement for – traditional net metering, good interconnection and other regulations that support rooftop solar and other on-site clean energy investment.
States and forward-looking utilities across the country are increasingly exploring shared renewables as an additional pathway to connect even more consumers with the clean energy they want. Given all the progress made over the past year, shared renewables programs seem to be on an ever-upward trajectory. Here are a few of the highlights.
Over the past year, the nation focused much of its solar-related attention on Minnesota, as that State’s Public Utilities Commission devised rules to implement an omnibus energy bill passed in May 2013. This law required Xcel Energy to permit community solar gardens of up to 1 megawatt (MW) in size, allocated to at least five subscribers. Subscribers may offset from 200 watts to 120% of their average annual consumption through a shared renewables subscription. With most of the details now worked out, this new offering should go a long way to helping far more Minnesota residents plug into the sun.
Enabling legislation was also abuzz in our nation’s capital last year. On October 1, 2013, the D.C. Council voted to enact the Community Renewables Energy Act of 2013. As 60% of D.C. residents are renters, this law will bring renewable energy, and in particular solar, to the masses by allowing utility customers to participate in a community renewable energy facility and receive credits on their electricity bills. The Public Service Commission has not yet adopted rules for these arrangements but a rulemaking process is currently underway.
In addition to D.C. and Minnesota, utilities around the country have been setting up voluntary programs in response to customer demand. Projects have been announced, planned or launched in places like Lincoln, Nebraska; Clark County, Washington; Westby, Wisconsin; Grand Traverse County and Lansing, Michigan; and Orlando, Florida. This is a much broader geographic distribution than we saw even two years ago when shared renewables systems were located almost exclusively in the west (mostly in Colorado and Washington) and northeast (mostly in Vermont). Now we see shared renewables programs popping up in every region of the country. And as these programs multiply, they are also innovating and building off one another.
We are also now beginning to see the market-expanding effects from some of the more mature programs such as those resulting from Colorado’s Community Solar Gardens law. According to the Clean Energy Collective, over 75% of electric customers now have access to a shared solar program in Colorado. Many local governments are also beginning to sign up for these shares to offset electric loads at schools and other government buildings. The private sector has also been given a boost by its role in developing projects, billing software and administrative roles for these community facilities.
Shared renewables programs represent an exciting new frontier for renewable energy in the U.S. Voluntary utility programs have exhibited creativity and innovation in program design, larger statewide programs have been able to reach unprecedented numbers of new solar consumers, and we see an increasing number of states considering programs of their own. The momentum of shared renewables has gained such force across the country; we can confidently say it is a trend that is here to stay.