Friday, October 9, 2015

Community Solar in Portland: Options and Barriers

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow
Credit: NREL
In my last blog post, I wrote about the difficulty of securing long-term access to solar energy as a barrier to residential rooftop solar development in Portland. However, many people, particularly in Portland, rent houses or apartments and thus aren’t in a position to install solar PV on their rental units or buildings. Even for those that do own their property, a 2008 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that only 22–27% of the country’s total residential rooftop area is suitable for solar PV installation. 

So what do you do if you want to install solar panels but don’t own a suitable roof? In some parts of the country, community solar presents an attractive alternative to individual solar ownership. Community solar refers to a system in which multiple people can invest in a solar project and receive power and/or financial benefits in proportion to their investment in the project. There are a number of models for community solar projects ranging from small-scale solar gardens and co-ops to large utility-sponsored projects. These options were explained in greater detail in a 2014  blog post by GEI Fellow Kyra Hill. More information on community solar in general is also available in the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Guide to Community Solar.” 

In Portland, however, community solar options are limited. In 2012, the City of Portland attempted a community solar pilot project, but ultimately concluded that the state’s net metering law presented a significant barrier to development of small scale, non-utility community solar projects. Oregon’s net-metering law allows solar owners to obtain credit from their utility for the amount of power they transmit onto the grid. Unfortunately, Oregon’s net-metering law provides no way for offsite solar generation to provide credit to solar owners, or for multiple solar owners to share credit for the generation from a jointly-owned system. Some other states allow what is called “virtual” net metering, which increases the viability of community solar by allowing multiple solar owners to share the benefits of net-metering from an offsite project in proportion to their ownership. Unless Oregon amends its net-metering policy to allow for virtual net-metering, it will be difficult to get community solar projects off the ground in Portland, because community solar owners cannot derive much financial benefit from such projects.

In the meantime, prospective Portland solar owners who do not own solar-suitable properties may turn to utility-sponsored “community” solar, as Energy Fellow Brandon Kline blogged about earlier this week. Under a program like PGE’s “Green Future,” the utility can invest in solar projects, while passing the cost onto those customers that choose to support the investment by joining the program. Thus, although these types of programs encourage utilities to invest in solar projects they might not otherwise pursue, they also require customer participants to pay an additional premium on their electricity bills. In short, they amount to “feel-good” programs where customers can pay more to know that some of their electricity is coming from solar, but do not otherwise provide  financial or energy benefits to the customers. In order to help community solar projects get off the ground in Portland, the state should adopt virtual net metering legislation that truly incentivizes development of jointly-owned, offsite solar projects.


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