While residential solar in the US growing, there are some stumbling blocks to mass deployment. Could the US example of solar gardens be the answer?
As solar systems continue to drop in price and installations become more affordable, solar power continues to gain steam in the US market. Through the first nine months of 2011, the U.S. solar market installed more than 1,000 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity, surpassing the entire 2010 annual total of 887 MW.
That number includes 449 MW installed in the third quarter alone – a record for quarterly installations and more new solar electric capacity than was added in all of 2009.
However, there are still challenges preventing people from installing solar panels on their rooftops. For starters, the permitting process can be long and tedious. And if you live in an area not conducive to solar, such as a heavily shaded property or in a part of the country that is prone to stormy weather, you are out of luck. Even sunny climes can have their hang-ups, such as housing associations that have struct rules about rooftops being condusive to certain design aspects, which would exclude solar panels.
The same holds true for potential solar users who rent apartments,who are not sure how long they will be at their current address, or simply can’t afford to pay for the solar panels and required labor costs to install a system.
That’s all changing, as solar power gardens become more popular in the U.S. Solar gardens are community-owned panels, often with the backing of third party investors, that allow almost anyone to buy into solar, even if they can’t afford a rooftop full of panels.
“The idea is to build a neighborhood array of panels that can take the place of rooftop panels,” says Greg Ching, Chief Sustainability Officer at The Solar Gardens Institute, a non-profit focused on building community power. “We encourage people to get their own rooftop solar if they can afford it, but renters, or people who feel they might move in a few years, may not be willing to do so. This provides a perfect solution, and if they move to another address they can retain the investment.”
A solar garden bill was approved in Colorado in 2010, and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission is close to approving final regulations that will allow solar gardens to move forward by the end of the year. The bill, HB 1342, provides access to solar power generation to local communities where a collection of subscribers to a solar garden can offset their electric utility bill by putting credits obtained from the solar garden toward their utility bill.
Colorado leads the pack
The Colorado law requires that each project have at least 10 subscribers, and that at least five percent of the power be reserved for low-income residents. An investor in the solar garden would need to purchase a minimum of two panels.
Ching says that the Solar Gardens Institute has a goal of making solar power an affordable option to every county in Colorado, even those with the lowest income. Ideally, 40 percent of the panels at some solar gardens would be reserved for low-income families. Utility Xcel Energy is backing the solar garden concept through its Solar Rewards Community program. For every solar panel owned in a solar garden, Xcel Energy will pay the owner for the power it produces every month as a direct credit to their electric bill.
California, Vermont, Maryland, and a host of other states in the U.S. are either debating solar gardens or have passed legislation allowing them. The bill filed in California (SB 843) would allow solar gardens to be as large as 20 megawatts (160 acres), which could power over 5,000 average homes.
However, Colorado is the clear leader in the U.S. The state’s first solar garden is already in operation, a joint venture between solar developer SunShare and the Colorado Spring Utilities, a municipal utility.
Located at Venetucci Farm, a facility in southern Colorado Springs better known for harvesting pumpkins than solar rays, the community garden consists of 2,508 solar panels. The energy produced by the panels is metered and recorded every 15 seconds by Colorado Springs Utilities.
At the end of each billing cycle, CSU credits the kilowatt-hours produced by the panels owned to the monthly bill. Each panel requires a one-time payment of $550, and a minimum lease of two panels for $1,100 is required to participate. Homeowners can continue to add panels later until they entirely eliminate their coal-based electric bill.
The solar garden concept allows homeowners to opt into solar for as little as $1,100, as opposed a much larger investment required to install a full solar system.
Colorado Springs Utility says that customers who purchase solar panels at the Venetucci Farm project will receive a credit of 9 cents per kilowatt hour on their electric bill for their share of the power generated at the community solar garden. In 2012, Colorado Springs Utilities will also provide subscribers a one-time, $1.80 per watt incentive up to 30 percent of their solar garden investment.
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