Community systems offer alternative pathways for solar growth

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Walking on the roof of his church among 630 solar panels, Bishop Richard Howell Jr. acknowledged that climate change is not the most pressing concern for his predominantly black congregation – albeit it disproportionately harms people of color and the poor.

“The violence we are experiencing, the shootings, the murders, the COVID-19,” Howell said wearily. “You are trying to save families, and right now no one is really talking about global warming. “

Yet his international ministries at Shiloh Temple in northern Minneapolis have welcomed the opportunity to become one of the many “community solar” providers emerging in the United States amid growing demand for renewable energy.


Larger than domestic roof systems but smaller than large-scale complexes, they are located on top of buildings or on abandoned factory and farm grounds. Individuals or businesses subscribe to portions of energy sent to the grid and obtain credits that reduce their electricity bills.

The model appeals to people who cannot afford rooftop installations or who live where solar power is not accessible, such as tenants and homeowners of homes without direct sunlight.

“We are helping to fight this climate war and provide families with lower costs,” Howell said.

Nearly 1,600 community solar projects, or “gardens,” are operating across the country, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. Most are in Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado, although 41 states and Washington, DC have at least one. Florida has relatively few of them, but they’re big enough to make the state a top producer.

Together, they generate about 3.4 gigawatts – enough for about 650,000 homes – or about 3% of the country’s solar production. But more than 4.3 gigawatts are expected to come online within five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“We can have a cheaper, cleaner, and fairer system for everyone if we build smaller local resources,” said Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a business group.

Still, it’s unclear what role community solar power will play in the United States’ transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

The Biden administration is continuing a $ 15 million Department of Energy initiative started in 2019 to support its growth, especially in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The department announced in October its goal of supplying the equivalent of 5 million homes with community solar energy by 2025, saving consumers $ 1 billion.

But electricity regulation occurs at the state level, where interest groups compete for what defines community solar energy and who should produce it.

The Solar Energy Industries Association says the label should only apply where private developers and nonprofit cooperatives, not just utilities, can operate solar gardens and send electricity to the grid. The association says 19 states and Washington, DC, have such policies.

Utilities say having too many players could undo the regulatory structures that ensure reliable electricity service. They warn of disasters like last winter’s deadly power outage in Texas.

“You have a lot of profit-driven players trying to make money,” said Brandon Hofmeister, senior vice president of Consumers Energy. Michigan’s power company is fighting state bills that would allow non-public community solar power providers.

Others say utilities simply avoid competition.

“What is really driving the community solar energy boom is the free market,” said John Freeman, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, a trading group. “It saves money and promotes a cleaner environment.”

GROWTH PAIN

Community solar power took off in Minnesota after lawmakers in 2013 asked Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, to establish a program open to other developers. It has more than 400 gardens – peaks in the United States – with nearly 500 pending applications.

Keith Dent and Noy Koumalasy, who are married, say the Shiloh Temple garden subscription has reduced their bills by an average of $ 98 per year.

“You generate your own electricity and save a bit of money,” said Dent, who has helped set up several complexes built by Cooperative Energy Futures, a local non-profit organization.

Xcel, who is forced to buy electricity for the gardens, says the state’s formula for pricing solar energy makes it too expensive. The costs, spread across all utility customers, essentially force non-subscribers to subsidize community solar power, spokesman Matthew Lindstrom said.

Community solar power supporters say Xcel’s claim ignores savings from lower distribution costs at local gardens.

Among the gardens of Cooperative Energy Futures are 3,760 signs in a parking lot overlooking the Twins baseball stadium and a collection on a farm near Faribault, 50 miles south of Minneapolis.

Despite clashing over cutting six acres of production, farmer Gerald Bauer supports climate cause and says lease payments of $ 1,200 per acre make community solar power a financial winner .

“Agriculture does not even reach the income generated by solar energy,” he said as he walked through rows of signs framed by cornfields.

A cooperative project for a municipal roof in the nearby town of Eden Prairie has twice as many potential subscribers as there are signs.

“There are people in the community who want to support clean energy in any way they can,” said Jennifer Hassebroek, sustainability coordinator for the suburban city.

But community solar developers face a roadblock: Under state law, residents and businesses can only subscribe to facilities in their county or in an adjacent county.

This means that the very populated Twin Cites have many potential subscribers but lack space for the gardens. Rural areas have plenty of room but fewer buyers for energy.

“Instead of expanding across the state, we’re going to focus on counties adjacent to subscription demand,” said Reed Richerson, COO of Minneapolis-based US Solar Corp., who built solar projects in half a dozen. States.

A bill from State Representative Patty Acomb, a Democrat representing a suburban Twin Cities district, would drop the “contiguous county” rule.

But Xcel says it contradicts a basic community solar principle: to produce power close to where it’s used.

Community solar is touted as making renewable energy more accessible to households, especially those who need it. Yet businesses and public entities with sustainable development goals, such as schools and town halls, underwrite most of the power.

Some states are trying to change that.

New Mexico requires at least 30% of subscribers to each community solar project to be low-income. Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon reserve portions of energy for low- and moderate-income residents. New York offers financial incentives for developers to recruit them.

“Much remains to be done to open access to the community solar market to marginalized people,” said Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor of public policy at Loyola University in Chicago.

LOOKING FORWARD

Community solar is struggling in states without established systems.

Michigan has about a dozen projects, although Consumers Energy opened a 1,752-panel garden on the grounds of an abandoned factory in Cadillac this summer.

Conservative Republican Michele Hoitenga and Progressive Democrat Rachel Hood are sponsoring House legislation to establish a state-regulated program open to third-party energy providers and utilities.

Hoitenga says it would boost freedom and the economy without raising taxes. Hood emphasizes climate benefits and equal access to renewable energy.

But their bills are disputed by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the two largest utilities in the state. They would cause “an overproduction of energy … and ultimately higher tariffs,” said Pete Ternes, spokesperson for DTE Energy.

The outlook is brighter in states favorable to utility developers such as New Jersey, Maine and Illinois, said Rachel Goldstein of consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

It forecasts a 140% increase in production capacity nationwide by 2026, although growth may depend on removing obstacles such as project size limits.

Community solar power is unlikely to compete with rooftop installations anytime soon, Goldstein said, let alone come close to large-scale operations.

“It is unrealistic to say that we are going to solve the climate crisis with this and that everyone will be a millionaire,” said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, managing director of Cooperative Energy Futures. “But we can say that you are going to have a better, more affordable, and cleaner life.”

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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