Four points to know about the growing community solar market

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An installation professional builds a community solar array. Photo: Clean Energy Collective

Article by Tim Braun, director of public affairs, Clean Energy Collective

Though solar is becoming more mainstream than ever, there are still many who aren’t able to own their own solar array—mostly renters or those whose roofs don’t get enough sunlight or lack the structural integrity for solar. Yet, this potential market could be as much as seven times greater than that of those who can independently own rooftop systems. One solution with increasing momentum is community-shared solar. The driving principle behind community-shared solar, or “roofless solar,” as Clean Energy Collective calls it, is to make renewable energy affordable and available to all utility ratepayers regardless of customer type or property constraints. Following are four points contractors should understand when considering participation in community solar.

The community-shared solar market is exploding

In its most recent report, NREL reaffirmed the potential for community-shared solar to serve as the dominant solar energy model throughout the country. The number of shared solar programs has grown from two in 2010 to more than 70 today, spanning more than 20 states with dozens of cooperative, municipal and investor-owned utilities—a collective capacity exceeding 170 MW. According to GTM Research, 21 MW of U.S. community solar came online in 2014, and it is forecasting that number to be 115 MW in 2015 and 534 MW in 2020. By 2020 shared solar will account for up to 50% of the U.S. distributed PV market, representing $8.2 to $16.3 billion of cumulative investment.

Why is community solar growing?

The appeal of community solar—for both utilities and electricity ratepayers—is escalating, due to several factors. Unlike most independently owned models, community-shared solar’s foundation is a mutually beneficial relationship with utilities and multiple customers. Community solar solutions are generally delivered outside a net metering framework, avoiding much of the angst over that mechanism. Economies of scale allow community solar to be offered at lower costs than individual solar systems. Beyond the feel-good reward, community solar offers a real consumer benefit in the form of a good financial payback, accelerating deployment even in markets with relatively low power rates.

Challenges of developing a community solar program

Community solar’s customer interface seems simple, but developing a quality community-shared solar program is challenging, requiring various experts and assets to effectively navigate the myriad complexities, including:

  • Legal and tax structures
  • Site development
  • Equipment procurement and installation
  • On-bill crediting
  • Tax credits and incentives
  • Consumer protections
  • Marketing and sales
  • Customer management
  • Operations and maintenance

Successfully pulling these aspects together can be daunting with little room for short cuts. Yet these issues are surmountable, and experienced community solar solutions providers are available to do the heavy lifting.

Technology can help

Customer acquisition and retention is the cornerstone of a successful community solar project. Well defined and impactful messaging centered on the program’s value proposition is paramount for spurring awareness, interest and conversion. Not surprisingly, consumers respond more when presented with the savings potential from shared solar participation than the environmental benefit.

A good community solar solutions provider can help automate marketing with a specialized customer management system functioning as the “bridge” between the customer and the array. This helps shorten the sales cycle, increase customer engagement and satisfaction and lower administrative costs.

A good community solar solutions provider can also introduce you to sophisticated software tools available for utilities, solar developers and other enterprises to successfully deploy and manage community solar programs alone, or with a development partner. These platforms can help lower risk, lower costs and provide higher customer satisfaction. New software as a service (SaaS) programs, like the Community Solar Platform offered by Clean Energy Collective, deliver a comprehensive suite of market-tested tools and services that can manage the entire program, including facility management, customer engagement, on-bill crediting, system monitoring and O&M assurance. These services—used comprehensively or in parts—fill the gaps for developers, EPCs and installers that lack the necessary expertise and field experience, simplifying the process, smoothing implementation and allowing for on-time and on-budget market deployments.

There is increasing demand for all types of solar products and programs. Because the addressable market for community-shared solar is so much larger than that of independently-owned rooftop, the future for this model is quite bright.

 

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