As Solar Booms, Creativity Kicks In to Widen Reach

By, Rona Fried, Ph.D.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s newest PV array at the National Wind Technology Center near Boulder, Colo., - a 1 megawatt solar array - is supplying laboratory researchers with more than carbon-free electricity.

Rona FriedThe more solar booms, the more people are finding ways to widen its reach. Here are some notable trends I’ve noticed over the past year or so.


Government Agencies Buy Solar Together

Government agencies are beginning to combine their purchasing power to buy more solar at below-market prices, such as San Francisco Bay’s Regional Renewable Energy Procurement Project (R-REP). Through a joint request for proposals (RFP), 19 agencies bought 31 megawatts (MW) of solar PV for 186 buildings, such as libraries, fire stations, medical facilities, city halls and schools. The RFP also requires local hires, creating about 900 jobs.

In New York, Sustainable Westchester expects 100 public buildings and parking lots to have solar by the end of 2016 through a 17-municipality buying group. In Massachusetts, state law requires utilities to pool resources, resulting in a 565 MW buy from six renewable energy projects in Maine and New Hampshire – powering 170,000 homes.

On the federal level, there’s the Federal Aggregated Solar Procurement Project (FASPP). The Forest Service, Department of Energy, and General Services Administration are using a single contract to gain greater efficiency and cost savings for 5 MW of solar projects at nine sites in California and Nevada.

This stems from President Obama’s recent Executive Order – Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade – which requires agencies to work together on clean energy procurement. The directive sets a goal for federal agencies to cut emissions 40% by 2025 while increasing clean energy to 30% of the mix.

“Increase Solar Access for All Americans”

That’s the title of a raft of executive orders Obama issued after July 4th to foster America’s independence – this time from fossil fuels. The goal is to make solar much more available to middle and lower-income households – he tripled the target for federally-subsidized low-income housing to 300 MW by 2020 (185 MW installed now).

• Affordable housing organizations will get direct technical assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and states will be encouraged to use Community Development Block Grants for efficiency and solar projects. In response, public housing authorities and affordable housing providers across the country have committed to installing renewable energy on their facilities.

• Homeowners who get mortgages through the Federal Housing Administration will have flexible financing options for solar systems, and will be able to borrow up to $25,000 for solar and efficiency upgrades on second mortgages.

• National Community Solar Partnership: The Department of Energy (DOE), HUD, USDA and EPA will work with solar companies, NGOs, local communities and states to bring solar to renters and homeowners whose roof doesn’t allow for solar (half of US homes).

260 projects in more than 20 states are already moving forward. For example, nonprofit RE-volv plans to finance 200 community solar projects in the next three years through a revolving solar fund; 30 rural electric coops in 17 states will install community solar by the end of 2016; Clean Energy Collective – which raised $400 million to bring community solar nationwide – is developing a 900-kilowatt and 1.2 MW project in Texas. And philanthropic and impact investors, states, and cities pledged $520 million to advance community solar and to scale solar and energy efficiency for low- and moderate- income households.

Oregon’s Renewable Energy Cooperative Bill

Under this new law, citizens can pool their money to build local clean energy projects without the expense and complexity of registering the investment as a security. It removes the barrier of having to pay legal and accounting fees to create and capitalize renewable energy coops.

Great Idea! Bringing Solar to Families That Can’t Afford Electricity & Heat

Instead of giving people money to pay for fossil fuels, why not give them solar electricity and heat? Just as the USDA now allows people to spend food stamps at farmers markets, a group in Minnesota wants to spend state energy assistance funds to bring solar energy to low income families.

“We are hemorrhaging public resources to foot the bill for low-income energy assistance. On an annual basis we spend about $100 million in Minnesota alone,” says Jason Edens, Founder of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL). “If we can deploy these community solar gardens in lieu of energy assistance, that’s a solution for decades,” he told Pine and Lakes Echo Journal.

RREAL built Minnesota’s first Community Solar Garden in 2013. Now, instead of giving families money to pay expensive electric and heating bills, they will get electricity from solar gardens. They can even get a solar heating system installed if they qualify for the federal LIHEAP program.

Under “Community Solar for Community Action,” not only will people benefit from clean energy, they are insulated from political decisions on how much funding goes to the program each year.

“This model could be deployed from Florida to Alaska, Hawaii to Maine because energy assistance is used even in warm climates. In those areas it is actually used for low-income families grappling with the high cost of air conditioning,” says Edens.

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