Community solar projects are popular and popping up across the country, but not all of these programs — which allow people to buy into a local project and benefit from their share of the electricity it generates — are equally successful. The numbers, according to a recent survey by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), are particularly disappointing: SEPA says that of 25 active projects reporting figures, one-third were fully subscribed, but one quarter had less that 50-percent participation.
SEPA aims to improve those figures with a new report, “Community Solar Program Design Models,” which breaks down community solar development into a series of basic steps and design decisions. Funded by the Department of Energy’s Solar Market Pathways program, the report was produced with input from a working group of utility and solar industry representatives, and community solar developers.
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“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 Dan Chwastyk, Utility Strategy Manager at SEPA. “One of our key findings is that you must know your market and craft a program based on customer needs and interests.”
Other takeaways from the report:
• As of the end of August 2015, SEPA was tracking 68 community solar projects in operation across the country, and 13 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to promote community solar development. About 80 percent of these projects are under 1 megawatt (MW).
• About 73 percent of the organizations responding to SEPA’s community solar survey charge subscribers an upfront fee to buy into a project; but as solar costs have dropped, so have upfront fees, from $5 per watt in 2011 to $3 per watt in 2015.
• Initial market research shows that consumers are interested in community solar, but are looking for programs with flexible commitments — such as short-term contracts and transferability. Some would also prefer the projects be located at remote locations where they don’t have to see them.
The next step in the project, now underway, focuses on more in-depth market research. SEPA and marketing firm the Shelton Group are partnering on consumer surveys and focus groups to test what community solar programs might be most popular with utility customers and how to craft effective marketing messages to increase subscription rates. SEPA will also be working with a small group of utilities to help them set up new community solar programs.
“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.”