There are dozens of community energy facilities and groups operating and planned around North America. With help from around the country, we’ve compiled a list:
Community owned solar energy in the U.S. had its start in Ellensburg, Washington. Gary Nystedt at the local municipal utility used grant money and community funds to build a 26 kilowatt array, with the panels leased to utility customers. The Ellensburg Solar Community, conceived in 2003 and completed in 2006, is now in its third phase, having grown to 78 kilowatts.
See http://www.ci.ellensburg.wa.us/index.aspx?NID=310 and
The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) installed a community solar array in 2007 called SMUD Solar Shares. This is now the nation’s largest solar garden, at a Megawatt in size. Subscribers enter into a power purchase agreement with the utility.
Who’s on First?
Few are aware of the scale of the existing solar gardens movement. This year we’ve already seen four announcements of a “first” (starting with us!) – all are important steps forward, but may understate prior work.
“First Working Solar Garden” – Westminster, CO
“Nation’s First Community-Initiated Solar Installation” – University Park, MD
“First Community Solar Project in the Southwest” – Taos, NM (Actually, Arizona was ahead)
“The Country’s First Community Owned Solar Garden” – Carbondale, CO
The first identified use of the term “solar garden” was first used to describe utility scale facilities, and was used in Spain as well as the United States.
“Community Solar Garden” was apparently first used by Luke Hinkle of My Generation Energy in Massachusetts. Various community wind programs around the country often preceded community solar.
The first community solar facility in Colorado was built by United Power Solpartners in Brighton in 2008 – 48 people each purchased the energy from a single panel.
Solar Panel Hosting started our 10 kilowatt prototype facility in Westminster in March 2010.
The idea of community ownership of renewable energy is nothing new in Europe, of course. In Denmark and Germany it’s common for people to own shares in a wind turbine or solar array. States and localities in the United States are beginning to offer tools such as a feed-in tariff (FIT), third party ownership, and virtual net metering.
A Diversity of Models
Community solar organizers around the country have used a wide variety of models to deal with securities regulations while passing tax credits to the consumer. Leases and power purchase agreements are most commonly used, as they avoid the need for securities registration entirely, and are relatively simple. Until the SUN Act is passed, the investors in or owners of the solar garden must claim the federal 30% tax credit to the savings on to the subscribers – not always easy to do.
In other cases, subscribers form an organization such as a limited liability corporation, a co-op, or a nonprofit. Each has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of tax structure, the ability to pass through profits, and variability from state to state. Schemes exist to capture tax credits through an LLC structure while avoiding securities regulation, but have yet to be fully tested by regulators or the courts.
Different structures better serve different segments of the market – individual ownership might be good for those with the cash or credit to pay up front, while low and middle income folks might find a lease the best option.
Offering A Choice
At the Solar Panel Hosting Company ( http://www.solarpanelhosting.com ), we are committed to customer choice and community participation, finding the right organizational structure and financial model for your solar garden. Our business models are designed to limit up front costs for both hosts and subscribers, and leverage the human energy embedded in each community. We want to be sure subscribers from all income levels have a chance to participate. Look forward to our upcoming announcement of specific pricing.