Community Solar Shares the Sun, Savings on Electric Bills

Technology brings solar's benefits to renters, people in multifamily dwellings, low- and middle-income residents priced out of market, and others

community solar
It is perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the solar sector, but not in New Jersey, a state that has embraced the technology as much as nearly any other.

Proponents, however, have slipped a provision establishing ”community solar” into a controversial nuclear subsidy bill, among other clean-energy initiatives that have been lumped into the legislation – at least for now.

Community solar aims to bring access to the renewable-energy technology to those who now do not have access to solar systems, possibly constrained by the location of their homes, shading of trees, property ownership, or some other factor.

More than 700 megawatts of community solar projects have been installed nationwide, according to Brandon Smithwood, policy director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

If New Jersey adopts community solar legislation, it would be the 17th state to enact such policies, he said. The community solar provision in the bill is strongly backed by the Murphy administration, according to proponents.

Sharing the sun

Community solar refers to local solar arrays shared by individual community members, who receive credits on their electricity bills for their portion of the power produced.

With a third of households renting their homes and 44 percent of people living in multifamily housing, it leaves many without access to the benefits of switching to solar energy, advocates say.

“Community solar has to come. There’s no question about it,” said Dennis Wilson, president of Renewable Power Inc. “Community solar is needed if we are going to transition to a low-carbon economy.”

It offers the opportunity to allow low- and moderate-income households to enjoy the savings solar can deliver on energy bills. In the past, such families paid to subsidize a portion of the cost of solar to owners of such systems without reaping any economic benefits of their own.

In Maryland, Illinois, and the District of Columbia, carve-outs have mandated that community solar reach at least 15 percent of moderate- and low-income households, according to Pari Kasotia, Mid-Atlantic director of Vote Solar, which is collaborating with the CCSA .

The New Jersey legislation does not have such a carve-out, but advocates say they could press for such provisions if the bill is enacted through enabling regulations adopted by the state Board of Public Utilities.

There are challenges to developing community solar programs, Smithwood acknowledged. In New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, there are fewer open areas to site the solar farms to serve as community solar facilities.

“Making sure land use is reasonable is a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable,” he said.

Under the bill (S-877) now under consideration, the BPU would be required to set up a pilot program for community solar. In three years, the agency would be required to establish a permanent program of at least 50 megawatts a year.

Not everyone in the solar sector is a fan of community solar. Lyle Rawlings, owner of a solar firm in Flemington, said it is designed to be beneficial to certain types of solar companies. “Is it designed to benefit communities or is it designed to benefit certain business models?” Rawlings asked.