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.

Pennsylvania’s Potential Wind Revival

Last decade, Pennsylvania was a leading player in developing a vibrant wind power industry, with new wind farms and new wind turbine manufacturing plants. Unfortunately, lack of Federal direction and a recent rush to fossil fuels has seemingly pushed wind to the background in the commonwealth. That could all be changing soon with new Carbon regulations from the Feds and a push by activists to re-start the Pennsylvania clean energy economy.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Carbon rules would make it more difficult to build new coal-fired power plants and could assign many existing plants to the scrapheap of history, where they belong. Wind and solar are in a perfect position to fill the vacuum left by this diminishing power resource. Pennsylvania has a lot to gain. Though it already has more than 700 wind turbines operating, mainly in the middle of the state, that’s just a small piece of what could be built. Indeed, the anti-wind forces see the potential here. They just passed a bill in the Pennsylvania State House to require a year long study on wind power’s impacts on the environment. This, despite the fact that the wind industry already agreed to studies conducted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and despite the fact that this same body does not seem interested in passing bills requiring studies of the impacts of fossil fuels on the environment and human health.

Meanwhile, activists in Pennsylvania are hoping for a brighter future. They’ve developed new ideas for policies that would get the clean energy industry back on track. Depending on what happens in the upcoming election, these ideas could be incorporated by new leadership in Harrisburg. To see what a clean energy revival looks like, Pennsylvanians just have to look south, towards their neighbor Maryland, where a strong solar requirement has led to thousands of homes going solar, new green jobs, and national companies moving into the state. Let’s hope there’s some change coming to Pennsylvania, for a cleaner, green future for everyone.