When I was a child my family purchased two bricks on the walkway outside the Aquarium of the Americas as a part of the campaign to help finance its construction. It was a community effort; nearly 30,000 bricks were sold.
Today a similar concept is gaining traction across the nation, this time in the field of solar power. With federal support for renewable energy on the wane, what’s called “community solar” allows participation by citizens who back the shift to renewable fuels but are unable to commit to rooftop collectors. Reasons vary: a roof may be unsuitable due to shade or architectural style; low credit scores may be a factor, and renters are normally disinclined to pour money into a landlord’s property, even if permitted to do so.
Here’s how community solar works. A utility agrees to either supply power or purchase it from a large solar field of several thousand panels — sometimes called a solar farm or garden. The utility customer then opts to buy or lease a single solar panel or a “block” of them.
The energy from the solar panels can not be routed directly to the participating customer’s home, of course. Instead it’s fed into the grid and the customer is compensated at a rate commensurate with his or her investment. It’s a way into the solar game for folks who are reluctant to take the plunge or who have been left out altogether.
Just as New Orleanians from all across the economic spectrum helped finance the aquarium, the subscription of solar panels is playing a significant role in the construction of fields that will supply power in coming decades.
Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have at least one utility offering a community-solar program. Louisiana is not one of them — yet. But even the Deep South is getting with it. Take Georgia, for instance.
Walton Electric Membership Corporation, a ratepayer cooperative headquartered 40 minutes east of Atlanta, is now on its third community solar project. The first installation — with 750 blocks of solar — sold out within seven business days. A second community solar installation, this time with 1800 blocks, sold out before the project went online.
“ ‘I’m proud of what you’re doing’ — we heard that all the time,” said Greg Brooks who directs Walton’s community outreach and public relations.
Walton customers pay $25 a month for a block of solar on a first-come, first-served basis with no long-term commitment required. The electricity from solar costs Walton slightly more than what it generates from natural gas, averaging about $1.50 more per month per ratepayer. But that still leaves the participating customer with a net monthly savings of $23.50 and the satisfaction that comes with supporting a source of clean, renewable energy.
It’s catching on. In July, I attended the Community Solar Summit, in Minneapolis. Hundreds of solar stakeholders from around the country turned out: policy experts, developers, utility representatives, advocates, engineers, attorneys. That a nascent industry is quickly moving into a new phase of legitimacy was evidenced by the number of participants wearing suits and wingtip shoes — financiers.
Minnesota is just one of the states providing community solar at rates equal to or even lower than what customers currently pay for power generated conventionally. Large commercial and industrial customers — hospitals, school districts, municipalities and the like — are now able to lower their electric bills as much as 10 percent simply by signing up for community solar. How so?
It’s all about economies of scale. A few years ago the state of Minnesota created a Renewable Energy Standard mandating that utilities source 25 percent of their electrical generation from renewables by 2025. That was an incentive for the development of larger and larger solar fields. Larger projects brought cheaper prices.
Will community solar reach Louisiana? In one sense the process has already begun. The City Council voted recently to require Entergy New Orleans, which it regulates, to take the first steps toward a community solar program. The council will develop guidelines for the program this fall, making it possible that New Orleans residents will be able to participate in community solar within a year or two.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Louisiana doesn’t have the mandate to develop renewables that is brightening Minnesota’s energy future. And without one, there is no top-down pressure on utilities to get smart about solar.
According to Jessica Hendricks, the state policy director for the nonprofit advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy, community solar is included in an open docket of the state Public Service Commission. The docket also addresses net metering, whereby homeowners are compensated for surplus solar energy they feed into the electric grid.
But even if the first regulations for community solar are approved this year or next, implementation will be another hurdle. Approval by the Public Service Commission doesn’t necessarily lead to community solar. “Without a renewable portfolio standard, there really isn’t that push for renewables,” Hendricks said.
Nevertheless, small pockets of engaged citizens are beginning to make a difference, even in Louisiana. Abita Springs is the first community in the state to accept the Sierra Club Ready for 100 Campaign and commit to 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2030. “What that means for Abita is finding a way to bring solar power to people both inside the downtown historic district, and outside it,” said LeAnn Magee of the citizens group, Abita Committee for Energy Sustainability. “Louisiana is ready. Abita is ready. Who doesn’t like cheaper, cleaner energy? The ball is now in the court of the utilities,” said Magee, who recently announced she’s running for the Abita Springs Town Council.
Today’s U.S. electric grid has 50 times as much solar energy as was available in 2007, and community solar is helping to grow that amount. As more states across the country adopt legislation mandating renewable energy, community solar will become more commonplace. With all our abundant sunshine, it’s time for Louisiana to come off the sidelines and get in the game.
Kevin Fitzwilliam is a fellow with Environmental Entrepreneurs, a branch of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He has worked in the solar industry in Louisiana since 2014. A survey he recently conducted through the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industry Association revealed that more than 95 percent of respondents would like to see solar energy provided by their utilities. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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