COVID-19 has forced many Americans to be at home more than usual. Electric panel monitoring hardware provider Sense found that home energy demand increased 22% since the pandemic started. This correlated with a typical utility bill increase of $22 to $25 or even higher in states with steeper utility rates.
One way for renters and homeowners alike to lower electric bills is by subscribing to community solar projects, but this unique solar option is largely dependent on state policy. Only 20 states currently have legislation on the books allowing for community solar development.
The Northeast is home to a number of these states, with Massachusetts and New York boasting 436 MWAC and 243 MWAC of community solar power, respectively. Rhode Island has a state-run website to expand residents’ access to community solar and New Jersey, Maryland and Maine passed legislation allowing for community solar in the last few years. Pennsylvania is next on the list.
“The urgency couldn’t be clearer because you’ve got a state like Pennsylvania, with high unemployment, you’ve got citizens who are struggling right now financially,” said Matt Hargarten, public affairs director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA). “Community solar projects, when they open up, get fully subscribed almost immediately and it’s because they help people save money immediately on their bill.”
Hargarten said community solar is an important option for residents because there’s no long-term commitments and subscribing actually makes electric bills lower, unlike many utility “green tariff” programs that charge residents a premium for opting-in to renewables.
It’s not surprising that the notion of expanding large solar projects hasn’t already caught on in Pennsylvania. It was the third-largest coal-producing state in 2018 and is the third-largest net supplier of energy to other states, after Wyoming and Texas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But gradually, solar has become more appealing to both parties in the state legislature, which holds the keys to community solar.
“It’s become almost a domino effect of states wanting the jobs, realizing that this can be really good for their constituents and that there’s strong customer demand,” Hargarten said.
Pennsylvania’s community solar bill HB531 is sponsored by Republican Rep. Aaron D. Kaufer, who has been persistent in moving this legislation, according to Tony Clifford, chief development officer for developer Standard Solar.
A COVID-related scandal in May caused Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai to step down and be replaced by a representative who finally allowed community solar legislation to go to the floor.
“If we get it out of the House, we can get this thing passed this year,” Clifford said. “It is absolutely huge and it’s been a long slog, especially [for] the folks who have been in this from the beginning.”
He thinks COVID has given the legislature even more reason to pass the community solar bill.
“If you’re facing a $6 billion deficit and you’ve got the opportunity to bring in a few billion dollars’ worth of investment over the next couple years, that’s going to help with your tax base and it’s going to help with your employment base,” Clifford said.
This bill has also garnered support from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
“For a number of years, our farmers have supported homegrown energy within Pennsylvania, within the nation, and that could be solar or wind generation, natural gas exploration, all of those types of things,” said Darrin Youker, director of state government affairs for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
Community solar sparked group members’ interests as an additional income stream after the tax incentives they previously used to build solar projects on their land are no longer available.
Youker said farmers like the fact that solar energy generation is not permanent infrastructure and can be removed at the end of its lifespan; so that land can be farmed again. They also like the option of incorporating a dual-use solar project onto agricultural land, whether it’s grazing animals underneath panels or using pollinator plants as solar groundcover.
“It’s no secret that farming has been going through a tough time over the past couple of years because of commodity prices and some other factors. For farmers that have the ability to use maybe some of their marginal farming ground or their building roofs or other land for a purpose like this and get a consistent yearly lease payment, that’s going to help the long-term economic viability of that farm,” he said.
Lessons from leaders
After Pennsylvania passes the initial community solar legislation, much work remains to be done. The state can look to northeastern neighbor Massachusetts for advice.
“Massachusetts has been a solar success story in a lot of ways, and the industry is proud of the role that Massachusetts has played in pioneering local solar and community solar in particular,” said Erika Niedowski, northeast director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA).
The state passed legislation opening its community solar market in 2013. Seven years and multiple iterations of solar energy policy plans later, Massachusetts is working on strengthening its community solar market and ensuring it remains successful.
The discussion now is around smart solar siting. Massachusetts wants to ensure there’s a balanced policy that allows the state to meet its clean energy goals through local solar, while also protecting the most valuable land, Niedowski said. She encouraged states with nascent community solar markets to make sure the right stakeholders are at the table to have conversations around siting and other issues that will come up later in the community solar planning process.
The second lesson Niedowski said other Northeast states can learn from Massachusetts is to codify the role of community solar and rooftop solar in reaching state climate targets.
“It’s very important to have that pathway laid out and to understand fully the necessity of local solar in reaching climate goals as part of an overall portfolio of climate action,” she said.
The third lesson for states to keep in mind with community solar policy planning is to work with utilities to determine how to plan for high volumes of solar interconnection. Niedowski said it’s crucial for utilities to efficiently study solar projects and process applications in a timely fashion.
Still, most important of all for states like Pennsylvania is passing that market-opening legislation in the first place. Then they can follow the lead of other states that had to blaze the path.
“Hopefully, they’ll get over the finish line and have to deal with the implementation issues, because there are a lot of models where we have more mature markets that have gone through some of the growing pains but are coming out stronger for it,” Niedowski said.
Editor’s note: Erika Niedowski died unexpectedly on October 2, 2020. The Coalition for Community Solar Access is asking for donations to the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island in her memory.
This story is part of Solar Power World’s annual Regional Solar Policy Report. Find out more in our digital edition of the magazine.