Fresh Ideas: Let sunshine in: Community solar gardens needed in Nevada
I haven’t put solar panels on my roof because, even with the sharply falling costs of solar panels in the past few years, whenever I pencil it out the payback period is still too long — we’re not sure how long we’re going to be in our house. And we have two big spruce trees that shade the roof. I like those trees and the shade they provide, and I’m not going to cut them down to install solar panels. I’m not alone in being unable to put in rooftop solar. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates 49 percent of households and 48 percent of businesses are unable to host a rooftop solar system.
But I want to power my toaster and teakettle by clean, zero-carbon energy, so I’ve been patiently waiting for legislation enabling community solar in Nevada. It finally looks like the wait has come to an end.
In this session of the Nevada Legislature Senators Mo Denis and Patricia Spearman have requested a bill draft to provide for community solar gardens in the state. Thank you, senators! You can be sure I’ll be calling everyone I know asking them to show up and support community solar legislation.
What is community solar?
Community solar, sometimes called solar gardens or shared renewables, allows customers with shady rooftops, or who rent their homes, or who can’t afford or simply don’t want to install solar, to buy or lease a portion of a shared solar system. Then their share of the electricity generated by the project is credited to their electricity bill, the same as if the solar system was located on their own rooftop.
Most community solar projects are small — between about 5 and 25 megawatts — so they fill a gap between huge, utility-scale solar arrays and the typically small rooftop solar installations. Community solar projects can be developed by a utility, by a small business, or even by nonprofit organizations. According to the Community Solar Hub website, there are 98 Community Solar Projects in the U.S., in 25 states, and they’re producing 100,546 total kW of electricity. States that have community solar programs include Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Delaware and Arizona — projects throughout the country in all kinds of climates. Strange that with all our sunshine we don’t have a program in Nevada.
We almost got a community-solar-like offering from NV Energy back in 2015, when the company proposed to the PUC to develop two 5-MW solar arrays — one in the north and one in the south — in a community solar subscription pilot program. But then the company said it wasn’t able to get bids to develop the solar arrays in the right time-frame and at the right price, so it withdrew its proposal.
Since then, NV Energy won a steep fee increase to its rooftop solar customers and a corresponding deep cut in what it pays them for the electricity they provide from their rooftop arrays. This led to PUC hearings packed with angry rooftop solar customers and installers, and eventually, to solar installers going out of business or leaving the state. After that decision, NV Energy doesn’t seem like a company that would be the best provider of community solar; the company clearly doesn’t support small-scale distributed clean energy.
The rooftop-solar fee increases probably contributed to the passage of the Energy Choice Initiative in November, when voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of more choice in their energy providers, and more clean energy options for the average small customer.
I think community solar would work either in the current, regulated-monopoly utility structure we now have in Nevada, or in a new era of energy choice. It’s exactly the right time to enable community solar in Nevada and to expand our clean energy choice. I hope our lawmakers recognize that when this bill comes before them.
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.