Coach Dave’s Playbook

This month, I have some insights on the progress being made in DC, Maryland, and Virginia respectively as it relates to community solar and low-income families. Hope it helps to clarify where the market stands as we close out 2017 and head into 2018.

***

Interest in community solar—particularly when it serves low- income families—is surging in the mid-Atlantic. Here at Groundswell, we foresee enormous potential to unlock savings and bring clean energy to low-income households. And we’re not the only ones. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that by 2020, shared solar could help unlock a cumulative 11 gigawatts between 2015 and 2020, and represent up to $16 billion of potential investment. These are impressive figures, but what really motivates us are the benefits for low-income households, many of whom currently spend 10 percent or more of their income on electricity (see our 2016 white paper for further details). 

Washington D.C. has an open marketplace for community solar. The Community Renewable Energy Amendment Act of 2013 began a process at the DC Public Service Commission (PSC) to finalize the rules for the District’s community solar program. But it wasn’t until January 2017 that the PSC issued rules for community solar that included a full credit rate for community solar projects. This has enabled community solar projects to be built in the District. The District Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) recently awarded Groundswell one of its very first implementation grants under DOEE’s Solar for All program, which was established by the Renewable Portfolio Standard Expansion Amendment Act of 2016. The Act intends to increase the amount of energy to be consumed from renewable sources to 50% by 2032, expand solar capacity in the District to 5% by 2032, and provide the benefits of locally generated solar energy to low-income households, small businesses, nonprofits, and seniors. One of the key requirements is that each project must provide 100 percent of the total energy generated by the newly installed solar energy systems, or the financial equivalent, to low-income District residents for at least 15 years. We are excited to get to work!

Maryland and Virginia are also diving into the community solar fray, albeit with quite different models. 

Virginia is launching an initial community solar pilot program for its two investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, after legislation supporting this program was signed into law in 2017. In Virginia’s model, the utilities maintain control of the systems—they will develop the solar projects (and in some cases own the assets), and sell the power to eligible customers who opt into the program. As a next step, Dominion and Appalachian Power will solicit feedback on their programs and file applications with the State Corporation Commission; upon SCC approval (expected by early 2019), the utilities will begin enrolling eligible customers. As long as the private sector barred from developing community solar projects, however, the state will lack a true marketplace. And from what I have seen, community solar will be sold as a premium product, which is a untenable solution for low-income households.

In Maryland, utilities are participating in the state’s three-year pilot community solar program administered by the Public Service Commission (PSC). The program has set capacity for each area of the state, with a statewide cap at about 192 MW. Approximately 60 MW is set aside for projects focused on low and moderate income customers. The state has also created separate program categories for small projects (under 500 kW) and systems built on brownfields, parking lots, or industrial areas. Companies and other entities intending to develop, manage, and operate and maintain community solar projects have been certified by the PSC as “Subscriber Organizations,” a necessary step before applying to the individual utility’s project “queue.” Individual subscriber households must be in the same utility territory as the project—so if you are a Pepco ratepayer, you would have to find a solar project that’s also in the Pepco territory. While the pilot project is set to last three years, at which point the PSC will evaluate its effectiveness and decide on the future of community solar in the state, any projects built during the initial pilot will be allowed to operate for 25 additional years after the program ends.