SEPA Introduces Report on Creating Community Solar Projects

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by Chris Meehan. Originally published at solarreviews.com

The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) surveyed 25 of the active community solar projects for a new report to discover how to make them more successful. It found that currently only one-third of the projects are fully subscribed. A quarter of them were less than 50 percent subscribed. The new report, “Community Solar Program Design Models,” is intended to help community solar farms gain the customers they need to be successful.

Overall SEPA is tracking 68 community solar projects across the country. The majority of them are smaller than 1 megawatt in size. SEPA also found that the majority, 73 percent, charge an up front fee of $3 per watt in 2015, down from $5 per watt in 2011 for customers participating.

SEPA’s initial research shows that consumers are interested in community solar. But they community solar options with flexible commitments. They’re not looking for long-term contracts, for instance, and they want their shares in the farm to be transferable. Some consumers also want the solar farm located where they can’t see it.

“Community solar can mean different things to different people in different locations, so we wanted to create core models and processes to give program developers a common set of definitions and guidelines they can adapt to local conditions,” said SEPA Utility Strategy Manager Dan Chwastyk. “One of our key findings is that you must know your market and craft a program based on customer needs and interests.”

“Utilities increasingly see community solar as a low-risk way to gain experience in integrating solar onto the grid while meeting customer demand for clean energy,” said John Sterling, SEPA’s Senior Director of Advisory Services. “This report will help create more opportunities for utilities to take that first step.”

The report discusses 12 key decisions to creating a community solar power project and shows what the most popular options are for those decisions as well as their results. These include things like third-party ownership vs. utility ownership, siting and more.

The report looks at projects in similar markets as well, like two projects in Florida: 400 kilowatt Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) community solar farm that sold out in less than a week in 2012 and the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative’s (FKEC’s) Simple Solar program, launched in 2010, struggled in its early stages to get participation, and had less than 10% of the available panels leased as late as 2014.

Based on the survey results SEPA offers some advice for utilities and project developers. It points out the importance of researching whether a proposed project is feasible and whether there is enough public interest in it. It also recommends selecting appropriate design options and a strategic marketing program as well as monitoring customer satisfaction with the project on an ongoing basis.