Maryland Takes Big Step Towards Community Solar Gardens

Things are looking good for the future of community solar in Maryland. After months of stakeholder meetings and research, the Public Service Commission (PSC) staff has crafted draft regulations that will spark a robust community solar market in the state. The 26 pages of regulations cover, sometimes in detail, the structure of a pilot program to develop 300MW or more of community solar over the next three years.  For the most part, the draft regulations come out very favorable towards those like yours truly who want this market to take off.

Community solar, or “solar gardens,” is a central solar project that serves multiple customers who cannot otherwise get solar on their roof.  Likely customers include renters, small businesses, homeowners with shaded or old roofs, and low to moderate income residents. It’s this last category of potential consumer that’s the most exciting. Imagine a world where everyone, not just affluent suburbanites, can get affordable clean, renewable energy.

The way the system is shaping up in Maryland, there are a few salient points to keep in mind.

  • Subscribers to the community solar project will get credit for full retail rate for the solar they purchase, meaning they will very likely save money on their electricity bills.
  • Commercial customers can participate, but one large customer cannot account for more than 60% of the project’s output.
  • The utilities will be required to facilitate the subscription by giving customers credits on their electricity bills.
  • There are many consumer protections in the regulations, to ensure a fair market. However, some of the regulations may inadvertently dampen the market and need to be adjusted in the final regulations.

Deeper Green is gearing up to become a big player in the Maryland community solar market. Our aim is to bring solar to the communities that have not had it before.  Stay tuned for more news on that front.

 

 

 

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Maryland on the Road to Solar Gardens

Maryland could be taking a big step towards joining the leading solar states in allowing community solar or solar garden projects. The General Assembly passed a bill that instructs the Public Service Commission (PSC) to create a pilot program and set the rules for it by early next year. Once in place, companies will be able to build large solar arrays that can produce power sold to consumers who are not directly connected to the array. The bill still has to be signed by the Governor, but with widespread bi-partisan support, that should not be a problem.

There are many variants to community solar, but in essence it is the only way for the vast majority of the public to gain access to the benefits of solar power. It works like this – a company builds a large solar array and then sells the power that array produces to many different customers (commercial and residential). The power from the array flows into the grid, but the customer gets credit for his/her portion by the process of virtual net metering. Virtual net metering is a process whereby the utility virtually spins a customer’s meter backwards to give credit for energy produced off sight. For example, if my home uses 1,000 kWh of electricity in a month, but I’m buying 700 kWh a month from a community solar project down the road, my meter would get virtually spun backwards and I would only be shown to be using 300 kWh in that month. Because the solar power I’m buying will be cheaper, I’ll be saving money while helping promote clean energy.

Community solar opens the door to solar for the 80% of the market that can’t currently get solar. This would be renters, small businesses that lease their spaces, and homes with shading or poor roofs. It’s an exciting time for Maryland, but the deal is not done. Solar advocates have to participate in the PSC process to ensure that the regulations for the pilot program are fair and enhance rather than preclude solar development.

The Rise of Solar Gardens

At this point, it’s impossible for even the most ardent old school energy guys to hide from the bright sunny truth that solar energy is blazing a new path in the U.S.  It’s easy to choose from a multitude of statistics that support this point. For example, as of the third quarter of last year, solar had made up more than 1/3rd of all new generating capacity built in the country. That would have been unimaginable just a few short years back. Here’s another – 6,500 MW of solar was expected online for 2014, a 36% growth over the previous year.  And one more – the industry is 3x as big as it was just three years ago and growth is only expected to accelerate.

Solar’s growth has been fueled by on-site installations on commercial, government and residential properties as well as utility scale projects. These two drivers will continue to fuel growth, but there’s a third driver that could open up the market to an even broader consumer base. I’m talking about something that’s typically referred to as “Community Solar” or “Solar Gardens.” Simply, a Solar Garden is a solar project that feeds its energy to the grid and is sold to a group of subscribers. In the residential space, a homeowner may take a 5 KW subscription, which would be the size of an average home installation. The beauty of a Solar Garden is that it opens solar to people who live in apartments, don’t have a good roof for solar (ie. too much shade), and maybe don’t have a high enough credit score for a 20 year lease on their own roof. It also opens solar for businesses, faith institutions, and other organizations that don’t directly pay their electricity bills, or are in a lease situation.

It’s a really exciting new development and it doesn’t take new technology to make it happen. It’s just a matter of changing a state’s law to allow virtual net metering, which is a cousin of net metering, one of the key regulations that allows solar to flourish. That’s the process whereby you are able to get credit for excess solar production at your site, meaning that you are figuratively spinning your meter backwards. Virtual net metering works the same except that the solar you are getting is off site. When you use less power than your subscription, you would be credited for the excess power.

If you don’t think this could be a big deal, just think of all those apartment dwellers in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco and other cities. Combined with the non-residential space, this would millions of new potential consumers to the solar market. And it’s not just wishful thinking. Colorado, Massachusetts, and Minnesota already have Solar Gardens or Community Solar laws, and the market is hot, as one recent headline noted, “In Minnesota, community solar market starting to take off.” Maryland has a chance to adopt an authorizing bill for Community Solar this year.  Other states are also considering action.

The momentum for Solar Gardens is going to build over the next couple of years. It just makes too much sense from a policy and consumer perspective. A simple change of net metering to include virtual net metering is all it takes in a state that already is favorable to solar. The bright sunny truth of a rapidly growing solar market is about to get even brighter and sunnier as Community Solar opens the door to millions of new solar consumers.