Author: Maria McCoy and John Farrell Published: 12/9/2020 ILSR
How are Community Solar Garden programs doing across the country?
For decades, rooftop solar has allowed homeowners to generate their own renewable energy — reducing their dependence upon grid energy and lowering their energy bills. However, solar rooftops are not an option for many people. What about those who can’t afford it? Or people renting their homes? Only about half of buildings have roofs that are large enough, face the right direction, and get enough sun for solar energy production.
Community solar picks up where traditional rooftop solar isn’t available.
Through community solar, individuals subscribe to a portion of a nearby solar project and get credits on their energy bill for the electricity it produces. This way, people without the financial means for solar on their rooftops and people who don’t own suitable rooftops can still reap the benefits of renewable energy. Local governments and installers can go even further to include subscribers with poor credit, or use local installers on the project.
Community solar can and has been installed on places of worship, in brownfields, and over parking lots.
For more details on the benefits of community solar, see this report from Vote Solar, MnSEIA, and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
We report on Minnesota’s community solar program every month in this blog post, but community solar is gaining traction in other states, too. Community solar can happen in any state sharing two key market characteristics: virtual net metering and requirements for utilities to connect distributed solar to the grid (interconnection rules). Community solar program legislation can include both elements.
16 states have passed legislation enabling community shared solar gardens, but only four have active programs with multiple installations. This post will be updated quarterly with the number of projects and megawatts of installed capacity in each state with a formal community solar program that allows non-utility ownership. Although rural electric cooperatives have built a significant amount of community solar, the programs do not allow non-utility ownership and may differ from state-based programs that are structured to provide bill savings to customers.
After a successful pilot program in 2010, Colorado finally saw an expanded community solar garden program in 2016. The program still has a cap of 105 MW, a figure grown out of Xcel’s settlement deal. The Colorado community solar program has always had a goal of inclusivity. Since the 2010 pilot, the program has had a 5% carveout for low-income customers. Now, advocates hope this percentage can be dramatically increased as the state continues to update the program.
At the end of 2019, Colorado’s community solar program hit 72 completed projects with 81 total megawatts of operational capacity. Xcel Energy reports on Colorado’s community solar program in its annual Renewable Energy Compliance reports.
Although the Massachusetts Senate passed a virtual net metering bill in 2008, it didn’t begin tracking community solar projects until 2014. Community solar programs qualify for two Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources programs: RPS Solar Carve-out II and Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART).
In the third quarter of 2020, Massachusetts’s community solar program hit 245 completed projects with 342 total megawatts of operational capacity.
Minnesota’s community solar program launched in December of 2014, with the first full megawatt of projects installed in January 2017. The program has since taken off to become the most successful in the country. The success of the program in Minnesota can largely be attributed to its design, which places no caps on community solar project development. It is also carefully constructed to make solar economically viable. According to ILSR’s analysis, the program has saved Xcel Energy customers millions of dollars.
In the third quarter of 2020, Minnesota’s community solar program hit 337 completed projects with 739 total megawatts of operational capacity.
In 2017, New York’s Public Service Commission passed the Value of Distributed Energy Resources (VDER) tariff. Meant to replace net metering, VDER credits distributed solar with a monetary value based on the many values that it provides to the system, including avoided fuel costs and avoided future power plant construction costs (for a deep dive, see our 2018 VDER coverage). Big utilities have supported VDER because, in some cases, the compensation rate of VDER is much lower than net metering. On top of this, it has made community solar programs confusing for developers and customers. In 2018, community solar advocates tried to put a moratorium on VDER, likening it to the Darth Vader of the community solar world. The Public Service Commission hopes a 2019 update will improve the program and make way for more community solar.
In the third quarter of 2020, New York’s community solar program hit 235 completed projects with 342 total megawatts of operational capacity.
Where is Community Solar Going?
Each program has been constantly evolving. Several of the programs have had to loosen restrictions, increase individual project size limits, and expand the overall size of the program. New programs would do well to build these changes into their programs from the beginning.
To date, Minnesota has seen the most success with community solar. Massachusetts and Minnesota had close to the same installed capacity in quarter three of 2017, 114 MW and 116 MW respectively, but the Massachusetts program has not been able to achieve the same rate of growth as Minnesota. This is, again, because the Minnesota program has no caps and secures an economical payout for installations.
Colorado and Minnesota are served by the same utility company. Xcel in Colorado (the Public Service Company of Colorado), however, has maintained severe program caps on Solar Rewards Community Gardens. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has approved each program cap in a series of expansions. Despite the Colorado state legislation passing one of the first community solar bills in 2010, the program has struggled to grow within its confines.
Additional State Programs
Hawaii, Illinois, and Maryland all have budding community solar programs, but have yet to see many interconnected projects.
- Hawaii, by an April 2020 Public Utilities Commission order, has begun phase two of its community solar program. In this phase, more program capacity has been allotted and the program will now include additional technologies and community solar gardens specifically for low-to-moderate income subscribers.
- Illinois has allotted much of the Illinois Solar for All program capacity, and many projects had their applications approved, but few have completed construction.
- Maryland’s community solar pilot program commenced in 2017. Utilities are reviewing applications, but as in Illinois, few have been approved and constructed.
Return to this page for updates on programs in these states as they get started, in addition to quarterly progress of the top four.
Other ILSR Resources on Community Solar
- ILSR’s Community Power Map, showing local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country
- The Community Power Toolkit, which includes community solar as one of 20+ tools communities can use to build energy democracy
- Why Minnesota’s Community Solar Program is the Best, which tracks Minnesota’s Community Solar Program monthly since 2015
- 2020 Report Designing Community Solar Programs that Promote Racial and Economic Equity
- 2019 Report Minnesota’s Solar Gardens: the Status and Benefits of Community Solar
- 2016 report Beyond Sharing — How Communities Can Take Ownership of Renewable Power