Seth Roffman

 

In a state with obvious wind and solar resources, more and more people are looking to renewable energy. Right now, if you’re interested in solar-powering your home, it has become increasingly affordable, and many people can manage it without much of a problem. But if your building has too much shade or poor solar orientation, or if you happen to be a renter in an apartment or a have a business that’s leasing space, or you live in a historic district—then installing solar panels may be more challenging, or may not even be an option.

Community Solar may be the solution. Community-owned solar allows multiple community members to lease or purchase photovoltaic (PV) panels within offsite solar arrays that are built, operated and maintained by a utility, a municipality, a business enterprise or a charitable nonprofit. The value of the electricity generated from the panels is deducted from a customer’s electric bill each month. Besides saving money and making clean energy more accessible to people of more income levels, this approach also reduces the atmosphere-polluting emissions that are contributing to global warming.

Utilities are interested in Community Solar because it is one way that can help them meet their energy portfolio standard requirements. Excel Energy is now offering it in six states. Through the addition of Community Solar projects, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative is able to generate renewable energy-derived electricity beyond Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s (Kit Carson’s wholesale power supplier) 5 percent limit. Kit Carson Co-op, the city of Taos and the Clean Energy Collective established a 1.2-megawatt agreement to launch New Mexico’s first community solar gardens. Under this model, members buy solar panels located in arrays on the roofs of schools and carports in parking lots. Members receive the same tax credits and electricity discounts as they would if the panels were installed on their own roofs. The panels have warranties for 50 years.

What happens to your investment if you relocate? Kit Carson Co-op provides some flexibility. If a community solar customer moves within the cooperative’s service area, the utility sends the credit to the new account number for the new location. Or, customers can sell their panels, transfer them or give them to a charitable organization to get a tax credit.

The intent of having community solar is not to start another utility within a company’s territory,” says Nicholas Schiavo, energy specialist with the city of Santa Fe. “It’s just to provide power to people; it’s not to generate more and cut into a utility’s profits. To make sure you’re not causing that problem there are things that can be done, such as not allowing a customer to buy more panels than would generate 100 percent of his or her needs as demonstrated in previous years.”

Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) is currently evaluating its involvement with Community Solar. For PNM to include it among its offerings it apparently will take some adjustments by the Public Regulation Commission to accommodate the percentages of residential vs. commercial pricing rates and inter-utility transmission issues that Community Solar raises.

PNM would also have to do a lot of accounting. With net metering, customers are credited for the exact amount of kilowatt-hours produced by the panels they have leased or purchased. The utility would receive a spreadsheet from the city or third party each month, saying how many kilowatt-hours an account produced. That number would be applied against what the customer’s meter says has been used, and the balance (if any) would be what is owed to the utility. The Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective has a proprietary system that automatically calculates monthly credits and integrates with existing utility billing systems, enabling all utility customers to easily have renewable energy credited directly on their monthly bills.

Community Solar in Santa Fe

A resolution recently passed the Santa Fe City Council unanimously in support of studying Community Solar options for the city. In the interest of powering municipal buildings, Nicholas Schiavo is proposing a 20-megawatt Community Solar project, which would feed power onto the grid from a 100-acre old landfill site. He says the facility would be able to make power more cheaply than can be generated from roofs of individual buildings. “With the most panels we could squeeze on top of City Hall, we would probably be able to provide something like 20 percent of the building’s electricity needs,” says Schiavo. “That’s a good start. But I would rather be able to say that 100 percent of City Hall is on Community Solar, particularly if I can show City Council that we can save a few dollars in the first year, and then, with the fixed price over the next 20 years as the cost of electricity goes up, we’ll be in better shape.”

Democratization of Solar Systems

Interconnected PV systems could also help democratize the availability of solar-generated electricity. With a third-party developer, as has been demonstrated in Boulder, Colo., even people with low incomes can negotiate lease payments; they don’t necessarily have to come up with a large chunk of money up-front. If the lease arrangement or flexible purchase plan is set up right, the payment can be less than a current utility payment, and you get renewable energy at a fixed price for decades.

For more information on Santa Fe Community Solar or to add your name or business to the list of local supporters, visit: www.sfcommunitysolar.wordpress.com

 

Seth Roffman, editor of Green Fire Times, is a writer and photojournalist. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Native Peoples, Native Americas Magazine, Weekly Reader, New Mexico Magazine and many other publications.

 

 

 

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