The community-owned solar garden: a revelation in clean energy adoption.
A solar concept in Carbondale, Colorado, allows those who can’t have PV systems—either because of financial hurdles, shady sites, or rental situations—to still reap the benefits of renewable energy. The Clean Energy Collective (CEC) allows people shift to locally produced, renewable energy by buying into a community array and receiving credits on their monthly utility bills.
“It opens solar ownership to everyone with a utility bill,” says founder Paul Spencer, estimating that it will increase Colorado’s solar adoption in megawatts by 67% in the next five years. “It’s not supplanting people who can and want to put it on their house, but rather expanding the market to the other 98% of electricity users.”
The concept is based on an organization that builds, operates, and maintains community-based clean energy facilities, collectively owned by participating utility customers. And its members reap the benefits of solar energy—including net metering, tax credits, and rebates—without having to install their own systems.
The idea of collective ownership in a “solar garden”—a centralized, community-shared array—isn’t new. Spencer’s model takes it a step further than previous efforts in other communities by providing the legal, tax, monitoring, and billing interface to integrate it all with local utilities.
Behind it all is the CEC’s RemoteMeter, a custom software package providing remote metering capabilities for CEC customers. The system integrates with utility billing systems to track and apply monthly clean energy production credits directly to the customer’s bill. It also lets customers and the utility monitor real-time energy production and account information online or via mobile devices, such as smart phones.
The first hurdle was devising an organizational and legal structure that avoided complex operational and administrative burdens, navigated securities regulations, and let members qualify for tax and rebate incentives. The billing structure also had to account for and automate monthly solar production credits on members’ utility bills without burdening the utility. “It had to be simple for everyone involved,” says Spencer.
RemoteMeter tracks the energy production of each individual owner/member’s portion of a collective energy facility. This data, driven by real-time meter and telemetry readings, is stored for processing and reporting to the utility, enabling customers to realize net-metering benefits directly on their utility bills. Customers are credited directly on their utility bills for the energy their portion of the PV system produces. Depending on the utility, the credit can take the form of a dollar amount reduction—typically through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA)—or as a kilowatt-hour credit through either a PPA, net-metering agreement or other mechanism in place.
Customers can acquire PV modules—and their resulting power production—in the facility by either direct purchase or a “financing sale” model. Purchases are made on a per-module basis and the customer holds title to the modules purchased. All the customer has to do is contact the CEC, look at a few utility bills to determine historical energy use, and then decide how many modules to purchase.
While the CEC’s model makes PV energy available to everyone on the grid, it’s also appealing for utilities, providing them with reliable, utility-scale clean energy—with the capital provided by utility customers. “It’s great to get local renewable energy off the ground, and this is one more arrow in our quiver to meet our renewable energy quota by 2015,” says Del Worley, CEO of Holy Cross Energy, which provides electricity to most of Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley consumers.
The utility doesn’t have to maintain or monitor the array. “A vital benefit is that it’s a utility-scale community system that’s fully integrated with the utility and, more importantly, one that’s operated and maintained outside the utility,” adds Holy Cross Energy’s Steve Casey.
CEC facilities are maintained for 50 years through a self-funded operations and maintenance escrow trust, initially capitalized through a portion of PV module sales and then continually fed by a small percentage of earnings for the energy produced, which is designated to the escrow trust. This trust provides funds for cleaning and, if necessary, replacing modules or making needed repairs to or replacement of other components.