Community solar has a unique offtake arrangement when compared to other styles and scales of solar projects. Unlike traditional residential or commercial arrays, community solar projects have a subscription model that gives nearby residents and business owners the opportunity to subscribe to a portion of the project and, in return, have a fixed monthly utility bill, often lower than their typical energy rates.
Not every state has approved a community solar program, but favorable policy for the community solar market is growing, and some solar contractors are making it their primary installation focus. One of those companies is Novel Energy Solutions (No. 88 on the 2023 Top Solar Contractors List) of Minnesota.
“Community solar has a direct community impact and allows for significant scale,” said Skylar Werde, chief revenue officer for Novel Energy Solutions (NES). “From a subscriber perspective, it provides an opportunity to save money on energy while participating in the renewable movement with no investment and begins as soon as the energy hits the grid. For us, the wins are even greater, as we provide landowners with long-term leases on their land that in many cases takes stagnant land and turns it into a maintenance-free cash crop. It’s a win-win-win.”
NES was founded by a fifth-generation Minnesotan farmer and has a long history in the Midwest. Yet, the company has had recent success with community solar installations in a different region — New England. Minnesota has a robust community solar program, but the bulk of NES’s recent work is in Maine. Novel Energy has installed more than 100 MW of community solar in Maine, bringing 22 MW online in 2022 alone.
Werde said community solar’s stable, reliable prices are enticing for customers in Maine, who have experienced a recent rash of utility energy price hikes. Ironically, state utility regulators have issued these cost increases because of the solar subsidies enacted in Maine, according to The Bangor Daily News.
One advantage of community solar is it lets residents who don’t have space for a solar array still benefit from renewable energy. While its presence isn’t widespread yet in Maine, NES sees big potential in this burgeoning market.
“Maine’s program and communities operate much like Minnesota in many ways and presented a much easier opportunity for NES to break into,” Werde said. “We look for states where we can partner with landowners and community members to generate a real benefit for both subscribers and the communities we build in.”
Community solar is only possible within a state that has policy allowing its development. Then, contractors building these projects must arrange agreements with utilities to build the subscriber models. Since policy can dictate community solar growth, NES has staff that works with the associations, the public utilities commission and state utilities that govern Maine’s community solar program.
“One important lesson we have learned over our 11 years of experience in the community solar market is the necessity of being agile and adaptable,” Werde said. “The development of large-scale community solar projects is not always linear, and unexpected challenges can arise.”
NES uses its in-house team called “Join Solar” to engage with communities it’s building in and educate them about community solar, covering steps in the development process from construction to subscriber allocation. Werde said its subscription management team similarly keeps education a priority while talking to its customer base, answering any questions regarding the program and its benefits.
Novel Energy is maintaining its trajectory in community solar development, identifying new markets viable for these arrays, and laying down roots in the states that already encourage them.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2023 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.