Villagers hope to let solar shine for all
- Published: December 25, 2014
Villagers who want to go solar but whose roof is shaded or who don’t own their home might soon be able to participate in a community solar project.
Proposed by resident Brett Henderson of Solar Power & Light and Yellow Springs Energy Board member Dan Rudolf in a public presentation last week, the community solar project would allow any resident — homeowner or renter — to invest with other residents in the construction and operation of a central local array and have the energy credited to their utility account.
The scheme, however, is not allowed by local ordinances. That’s why Henderson, Rudolf, and a group of interested villagers are urging the Village to reconsider its policies about how, and where, residential solar is generated.
Currently, the Village allows up to 1 percent of its electricity usage to be generated by small residential solar projects (up to 25 kilowatts). But according to the ordinance, all solar arrays must be installed on a homeowner’s property, also known as “behind the meter” systems.
A community solar project would help the Village reach the 1 percent residential generation figure as fast as possible since a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar systems expires at the end of 2016, Henderson said. Climate change is another reason to move fast, he added.
“From the planet’s perspective, we needed to get that 1 percent in yesterday,” Henderson said. “The faster we can get the solar out there, the better.”
If the project took up the entire 1 percent, about 250 kW, it would power nearly 40 homes with 100 percent solar-generated electricity, Henderson estimated. A community solar project would be more efficient because the panels could be installed at the optimal tilt and orientation and in full sunlight, while the array would take advantage of efficiencies of scale, he added. As a result it might cost participants less, and compensate Village government more, than 40 stand-alone residential projects averaging 6.3 kW.
“Because of the economies of scale, we can spread the savings around to make everybody happy,” Henderson said. “And we would pick the best site so we get the most bang for our buck.”
But the Village is concerned about the fiscal and legal impacts of community solar, according to Village Manager Patti Bates this week. With 22 residential solar arrays operating, the Village may already be close to meeting the 1 percent figure, which was determined so that the Village didn’t purchase more energy in committed contracts than it was actually using, Bates explained. Producing more solar energy here could hurt the Village electric fund’s bottom line, even though the fund is currently healthy, she said.
“We have to be careful that we don’t produce so much solar that we don’t need those contracts,” Bates said. With a 50 kW solar project at Antioch College’s North Hall and a slew of smaller residential projects, the Village could already have a significant amout of residential production, she added.
In addition, solar that is directly connected to the Village’s distribution system “is a whole other ball game” compared to the current model of an interconnection agreement for each residential system, Bates said. Those agreements simply allow people to make the improvement on their property, she said.
Under the present net metering arrangement, solar photovoltaic electricity generated from residential arrays is first consumed on-site, with any excess production credited to the customer’s electric bill at the rate of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. To allow community solar, the Village would have to enact a “virtual net metering” ordinance. The electricity generated from a community solar project would directly enter the local grid, with utility bill credits based upon monthly production accruing to those community members who buy into the project.
That arrangement, where the community solar partner could be considered a provider, might mean the Village would legally have to allow other electricity providers, such as DP&L, to compete for local customers, Bates added, since the Village can’t discriminate against providers. It’s one of many issues the Village is currently looking into, she said.
Currently, five states require virtual net metering ordinances by law, while no such legislation exists in Ohio.
Community solar advantages
A variety of reasons — financial to technical — currently prevent homeowners from installing solar on their property, according to Henderson. The ideal solar array would be oriented due south, tilted 30 degrees and have zero shade. But the village is chock full of large trees that shade many properties and rooftops. Some roofs don’t face directly south or are not ideally tilted to take the most advantage of sunlight. Other roofs don’t have the necessary 25 years left of life for an installation.
Renters are even more limited in their options for going solar. They could make an arrangement with landlords to invest in solar, but would likely not be able to take the solar panels with them when they leave, Henderson explained. To finance a rooftop array, a homeowner must have enough equity and banks are less likely to lend since once the panels are installed, they are not easily repossessed and resold. After accounting for structural, shading and ownership issues, only 22 to 27 percent of residential rooftop area is suitable for hosting a solar array, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
According to Rudolf, in a community solar project, any local resident could buy any number of panels — from 1 to 10 or more, up to 25 kW or their peak load — and might be able to purchase more over time. If the participant moved, the benefits from the panels would continue to accrue to them at their new residence. Financing could come from a conventional bank, or a local lending organization, and would be lower risk since the panels, as collateral, can easily be resold to another willing participant.
Because of the efficiencies of scale, any added costs to the Village, from utility bill software upgrades to incorporate solar credits, to any distribution costs, could be paid for by the project, according to Rudolf. For example, the solar participant could get a percentage of the power generated, with the rest going to cover line costs, grid maintenance and software.
Henderson added that the Village could benefit from emergency backup power if a battery system were installed with the array (at no cost to the village) and it would improve the town’s brand as a green community. Currently the group is looking at private properties and Village-owned land for the array, including above parking lots.
Why local generation?
Council member Marianne MacQueen hopes the Village considers the policy changes needed to allow community solar while being careful not to lock itself into too many commitments for electricity with its “significant deficit budgets.” She said that even though Yellow Springs will purchase 83 percent of its electricity from renewables in a few years, locally-generated renewables have their advantages, from making the local grid more secure in power failures to putting the control in local hands.
“In terms of energy policy, we can’t count on the federal government and we certainly can’t count on the state government to do any progressive initiatives,” MacQueen said. “If people are serious about climate change, change has to happen at the local level.”
By 2016, the Village will be committed to getting 60 percent of its electricity from hydropower plants on the Ohio River and at Niagara Falls, 20 percent from landfill gas and three percent from a wind farm. The remaining energy comes from a natural gas plant (8 percent) and open market purchases. In addition to the 1 percent residential solar allowance, another 4 percent in the electricity portfolio can be used by large on-site solar projects (up to 1,000 kW), an amount that is now entirely used up by the Antioch College solar project.
But Rudolf said that the 1 percent residential generation figure is “relatively arbitrary” and hopes the Village reviews it, while he is skeptical that the small projects currently installed amount to the 1 percent (most are in the range of in the range of 1–3.5 kW). In addition, if the Village moves towards carbon neutrality by encouraging plug-in electric cars and ground-source electric-powered heat pumps, local electricity use could well increase, opening up more room for solar, he said.
“This is a small piece of the overall vision of trying to make Yellow Springs carbon neutral,” Rudolf said. “Realistically in the next few years and if we gain traction and momentum, our electricity use could go up, not down. Instead of signing more contracts, why don’t we increase the percentage of local renewables?”