Community solar farms, which parse out clean energy to a group of shareholders, are quickly becoming the next largest solar market in the US.
Over the next two years, community solar in the US is set to see its market size increase seven-fold and by 2020 it will be growing by half a billion watts annually.
One of the benefits of a community solar farm is that it offers consumers who don't own a home the ability to adopt solar.
According to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), there are at least 52 community farms in US states and at least 10 states are encouraging their growth through policy and programmes.
Twenty-four states have at least one community solar project in operation, with 12 states operating at least two community farms or more, GTM said. The leading states based on operating capacity are Arizona, Colorado, California and Massachusetts.
Idaho Power is testing the water by proposing a solar power pilot project which will create the first utility-owned solar plant in the state.
Under the proposal submitted to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission (IPUC), Idaho Power would build a 500kW solar array on property it owns near its Boise Bench substation, near a substation close to Amity and Holcomb Roads, near Columbia Village. The area is the size of two football fields and officials say it would cost $1.16 million to build and $82,000 to connect. If the proposal is approved, customers could purchase subscriptions entitling them to a portion of the electrical output from the project, and would receive a monthly bill credit based on the amount of solar power generated.
Evaluating customer commitment to solar
The pilot project would power about 730 homes and is aimed at attracting customers who can't install solar panels on their homes for a variety of reasons, such as rental agreement restrictions, community rules or locations with too much shade.
"This pilot programme is intended to evaluate customer commitment for a community solar project," said Pete Pengilly, customer research and analysis leader for Idaho Power, in a statement. "It originated from customer interest in having a solar option provided by Idaho Power."
If approved, the project would allow participants to purchase one or more subscriptions for $740 each. In return, they would receive credit for their portion of the solar array's output on their monthly bill. Monthly bill credits will be based on the energy costs being offset by the solar array, currently about 3.02c/kWh for residential customers and between 2-3/kWh for non-residential customers. This credit would be revisited when electric rates change and updated to reflect current costs.
The pilot will be paid for primarily by participants who purchase subscriptions, along with company shareholders. It is not designed to be paid for by non-participating customers, according to Idaho Power's announcement. If approved, the utility hopes to begin enrolling customers this year in late summer or early fall and have the project up and running by summer 2017 if there is sufficient customer enrolment.
"Participation in the Community Solar Pilot Programme is voluntary, and it gives participants the opportunity to use solar energy generated right here in Boise," Pengilly said.
In the interest of solar…
The amount of energy that would be generated by the solar project is a small fraction of the 3,200MW the company is occasionally called on to supply on a hot summer day. Much of that is supplied by the company’s 17 hydroelectric projects on the Snake River and its tributaries, as well as coal and gas plants, which can produce less expensive power than solar energy.
Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin warned that participants won’t save money on their monthly energy bills except for a tiny monthly deduction over 25 years that pays back the initial $740 solar project construction subscription cost.
“This is intended for folks who want to support the development of solar energy,” he said.
Meanwhile, the company will learn more about solar energy as costs to produce it decline and regulations come into force requiring reductions in carbon emissions.
The Idaho PSC will decide whether the project’s business model is good for the state and consumers, commission spokesman Gene Fadness said.