The Power of the Sun for Everyone through Community Solar!

By 29 June, 2021News & Noteworthy

The Power of the Sun for Everyone
through Community Solar!

Leo Wiegman, Director of Solar Programs,
Sustainable Westchester

What if everyone could have access
to renewable solar energy without installing solar?

Powering our lives through renewable solar energy has become more accessible and affordable than ever before.

In fact, the number of solar installations on homes and businesses is growing rapidly, and by the end of 2021, more than 8,300 homes and businesses in Westchester County will have installed solar systems, chiefly on roofs.
Just over 330,000 households call Westchester County home. Even if rooftop solar on homes in Westchester increased tenfold to 83,000 solar systems, that still leaves over three quarters of our households without direct access to the benefits of solar energy.

Between 2014 and 2018, twenty-two municipalities hosted Sustainable Westchester’s Solarize Westchester campaigns. Over 600 homeowners were able to install solar systems through this Solarize effort, which has been a great success.

However, during these Solarize campaigns, we found that almost 8 out of every 10 homeowners who inquired about solar on their homes were not able to proceed.

A household may not be able to install its own solar panels for many good reasons: The home may have too much shade from trees; The roof’s orientation may not be sufficiently south-facing; The roof size may not be adequately rectangular or large enough; The household may be a condo, co-op or rental unit without access to the roof; Or the household may not wish to borrow needed funds.
But did you know that these same homeowners can still reap the benefits of energy-efficient solar power? That’s where Community Solar comes in!

What is Community Solar?

In a nutshell, Community Solar is a statewide program that allows households to subscribe to their allocated share of a larger solar project (a.k.a. “solar farm”) located elsewhere within their utility’s service territory. Each subscriber earns solar credits each month that saves them money and supports renewable energy efforts.

The solar farm could be on the roof of a large warehouse or office building. It could be on canopies in a large parking lot of a nonprofit. It could be mounted on the ground at an old landfill. In fact, in Westchester County today, we already have these three examples of community solar projects from Yonkers to Ossining and Mount Kisco.

In each case, the site owner-such as a commercial property owner, nonprofit organization, or local government-enters into a lease agreement for that space with a solar project developer. The developer agrees to pay the site owner a lease amount to develop, install and maintain the solar farm at the developer’s expense. After the solar farm gets permission to operate from the local utility, the energy production is divided up among all the participating households or small businesses.

Who benefits?

First, the utility benefits from avoiding the production of that energy itself and the site owner is now earning a lease payment for a roof or other area that was not earning revenue before. Second, the solar developer is getting subscribers who want to benefit from solar and the subscriber benefits from a monthly savings on each bill from the solar credits that their share of the farm has earned. In the end, all parties receive some form of benefit from the development of Community Solar.

Access and equity for all!

Community Solar opens up access to the benefits of solar energy to every household that pays an electric bill. Customers who enroll in Community Solar will see monthly savings for twenty years or longer. With no cost to join or cancel and no solar installation on the subscriber’s property, Community Solar removes the barriers for households who rent or live in multi-family buildings.

How do solar credits work?

New York has put in place strong new policies to decarbonize the energy sector. In fact, New York has mandated that each bill for customers participating in a Community Solar project must produce a savings of at least five percent for the net credits (a.k.a. “solar credits). Some Community Solar projects have been able to offer up to ten percent savings for the solar credits.

Let’s follow the dollars! On a typical monthly electric bill, you get a bill from the utility and pay it. You may be using an energy supply company for the supply of electricity. If so, that supply amount is shown on the bill and added onto the utility’s delivery charges for a total amount.

When you subscribe to Community Solar, the solar farm reports to the utility how many kilowatt-hours of electricity your share produced that month. The utility multiplies that energy amount by each month’s energy rate, which yields a dollar value for those solar kilowatt-hours (that it received from the solar farm grid injection).

Bottom line, your subscription produces a savings on your monthly energy bills for twenty years or longer. And, your subscription to a Community Solar project can be cancelled at any time, without a fee, and costs nothing to join.

New York has also mandated that every utility must do the billing for community solar projects just as they have been doing for energy service companies for many years. Once our local utilities implement this consolidated (or “net credit billing”) in 2021, your solar farm credits and savings will show up on the same monthly electric bill you always get. And you pay for it however you currently pay your electric bill.