Grist Magazine, April 3, 2015
Located on a busy street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, the blue-green building has a simple, rectangular design. It’s only three stories high and has a modest 30 units. A clock with a sunburst design, located on the building’s side, provides a touch of pop — and hints at the building’s cool secret: There’s a solar farm on its roof.
These days, a rooftop solar array may not sound like a big surprise, even in rainy Seattle. But here, there’s a twist: The array of photovoltaic panels may be the first of its kind to be built on the roof of an affordable housing complex — and its unique funding mechanism enables more people to contribute to, and benefit from, solar power. It’s a creative example of the real sharing economy: While participants don’t share tangible items like bike parts or strawberries, they do share in the wealth of the booming clean-energy economy.
The solar sector in particular is going off. Last year was solar power’s biggest year (in terms of new capacity) in the U.S. Solar systems now account for nearly a third of new electricity-generating installations nationwide. The $13.4 billion U.S. solar PV industry employs more people than Google, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter combined, according to a trade group report released last month.
Community solar projects allow people who don’t have sunny enough roofs, or who don’t own their own properties, to buy in to a solar farm that’s constructed elsewhere and save dough on electric bills based on the power that’s generated. These community clean-energy systems empower all participants to share financing, earnings, and risk. The minimum buy-in for a community solar program typically runs from $500 to $1,400: not cheap, but not tens of thousands of dollars, either.
Here’s how the Capitol Hill project works: For $150, any customer of Seattle City Light can buy “solar units” from the utility, which fronted the capital for the panels and installation. Each unit represents 28 watts of the array’s more-than 25,000 total. As the project produces electricity, it makes revenue by selling said electricity and raking in some of Washington state’s super-generous incentives for producing solar power. Participants earn a share of that revenue, which is shaved off their electric bills. City Light customers that buy solar units will likely make back a little more than their original investment by the time the program ends in 2020, when the state stops giving away $1.08 per kilowatt-hour to community solar projects with Washington-assembled panels and components.
Meanwhile, Seattle City Light’s community solar model is spreading: Public utilities and electricity co-ops all over the state of Washington are replicating Seattle’s community solar program — even copying website FAQs word-for-word.
Durard shared insights about City Light’s program on a call with utilities from all over the country a few weeks ago. Even though the rules for community solar differ substantially state by state, she says, “People still had a ton of questions about marketing, interest, and how to get to their customers, because they’re hearing it from their customers.”
A handful of organizations and initiatives elsewhere are working to bring solar to the masses, too. Crowdfunding platform Mosaic, based in Oakland, Calif., connects people going solar to investors who can lend them some money — as little as $25 — to make it happen. GRID Alternatives, also out of Oakland, doesn’t just hook up low-income folks with solar systems for little-to-no upfront cost — the nationwide nonprofit puts up those panels with volunteers and job trainees, providing education and hands-on experience. And Colorado’s community solar gardens legislation requires that at least 5 percent of each project is allocated to low-income residents.
John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who’s written plenty for Grist about solar, says more shared solar power means more power to the people. “I see community solar — and solar installations in general — as not only a democratizing force in terms of economics, and sharing the wealth of energy production, but also in terms of the politics,” he says, “making people aware that we can make different energy choices than we’ve made in the past and the power doesn’t have to reside in the same utility.”
Hey, if notoriously sun-starved Seattle can bank on solar, places like Florida will soon be out of excuses.