May / June 2017 cover

Integrating Community Solar


The electric industry is amid a trans-formational change, with disruptive forces moving faster than many utilities, regula-tors, politicians, and ratepayers can fathom. Innovation in renewable energy gener-ation has provoked a shift in both perspec-tive and strategy, with distributed energy resources now viewed as a source of opportunity rather than obligation, and utilities learning how to best integrate them into the grid and build sustainable business models around their growth.

One of the most rapidly expanding distributed generation solutions is communi-ty solar. Community solar allows residents and businesses that have traditionally been sidelined from the rooftop market to access the benefits of locally-sited solar.

Community solar continues to demonstrate a proven capability to concurrently serve utility, developer, and customer motives. The tools, services, and expertise for program integration and operation are available and evolving.

The nascent community solar market has blossomed from just two projects in 2010 to more than 100 today, spanning 25 states. In 2016, cumulative operating capacity crossed the 200 MW mark and is forecast to exceed 400 MW this year. The category is expected to be a multi-gigawatt annual market and drive 25% of the annual non-residential PV market over the next few years. By 2020, community solar will represent half of all distributed solar.

Commercial and industrial companies are increasingly approaching community solar as an efficient, cost-effective way of procuring renewables, accessing the grid, engaging employees, and demonstrating leadership in their communities. Retail demand is escalating as consumers become more educated and excited by the model and its value proposition.

Despite the relative complexity in getting a community solar project or program from initiation to sellout, enthusiasm is rising and new markets are opening. Some of the U.S.’s largest investor owned utilities and most advanced cooperative and municipal utilities are turning to community solar as a cost-effective renewables strategy because it reaches near utility-scale economics, avoids the constraints facing rooftop models, supports RPS man-dates, protects against retail rate erosion, and maintains a grid-tied connection with customers.

Utility-led community solar programs are showing significant activity and growth. An example of this collaboration is the recently announced partnership between South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) and community solar solutions provider Clean Energy Collective (CEC) to develop a 16 MW community solar pro-gram in South Carolina. CEC will build, own, and operate the facilities, and integrate its software and services offerings—including customer acquisition, system monitoring, production tracking, bill crediting, and ongoing subscriber engagement. Through this partnership, SCE&G will enable more residents, schools, churches and municipalities to support renewable energy generation than ever before.

Legislative and regulatory efforts shaping the future of renewables increasingly hold community solar as an effective solution for delivering broad access to renewable energy, irrespective of geography and in a way that serves the objectives of all, or at least most, stakeholders. At present, more than half of U.S. states plus DC have enacted or are considering some form of legislation empowering communi-ty renewables. The policy framework in these states allow third-party developers to deploy projects, with clearly defined guidelines and predictable economics. This state policy momentum is expected to continue.

Legislation is not a requirement for community solar’s progress, however, demonstrated by strong growth in non-legislated markets. Utility-sponsored initia-tives, by investor-owned, municipal, and cooperatives, have led recent movement to integrate community solar to cost-effectively serve ratepayer demand for renew-ables. More than 150 utilities across the U.S. are now operating or developing a voluntary community solar program.

Technology, such as CEC’s Community Solar Platform software, is serving program integration and manage-ment. Progress is accelerating in the areas of consumer and market intelligence, product design, facility monitoring and on-bill crediting systems, and long-term customer engagement. Enterprise-level software is providing utilities, developers, and asset owners the tools to navigate complexities of community solar programming, includ-ing customer acquisition, program and regulatory management, billing integration, facility O&M, and customer E&M (the long-term engagement and manage-ment of program participants).

This new software-driven community solar industry is enabling an environment where soft costs can and are moving down as quickly as hard costs and is significantly improving the value proposition for developers, asset owners, and utilities alike.

The rapid scaling needed to reach community solar’s promise requires a continued focus on innovation and creativity, the persistent pursuit of efficiencies, and expanded partnerships throughout the development process. With every program, solar providers, regulators, utilities, and advocates have a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers to reach-ing community solar’s multi-gigawatt destiny.