Putting "community" in solar
South Carolina’s electric cooperatives are creating the largest network of community solar installations in the state, significantly expanding access to solar energy for cooperative consumers.
“Community solar is a good fit for electric cooperatives and our consumer-members,” says John Bloodworth, chairman of the board of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, the state association of cooperatives. “The installations are local, and the renewable energy is locally produced for those who want it.”
Community, or shared, solar means multiple people get electricity from a midsize solar array, offering a convenient option for consumers who want to buy power from a carbon-free resource.
The initiative will add solar installations in sizes up to 250,000 watts each, totaling as much as 5 million watts statewide.
“Community solar is the sweet spot between large, utility-scale installations and rooftop solar,” said Robert "Rob" Hochstetler, president and CEO of Central Electric Power Cooperative. Central provides total wholesale electric service to local cooperatives that deliver power to more than 720,000 members. “Community solar allows consumer-members an easier way to access clean energy and gives our co-ops a chance to see if the technology can deliver power consistently at a competitive price.”
The timeline of events—from construction to subscription sales—will vary among electric cooperatives. Each cooperative will determine whether Community Solar is right for its members and, if so, when and how to build, market and offer it. Local ordinances, site permitting, and construction schedules will vary by service area. Most construction will be completed in the second half of 2016 or early 2017.
A comprehensive residential solar study of electric cooperative consumer-members in South Carolina showed a notable number with an interest in solar power, but few respondents were willing to pay more for it. Sixty-six percent of co-op consumer-members indicated that they believe solar is an important source of electricity generation for the U.S. in the future. Seventy percent expressed interest in participating in a community solar program and said they prefer that their cooperative own and operate a community solar farm versus the installation of solar panels on their property. Only 24 percent of members expressed strong interest in home solar panels, even if the cooperative installed them and billed for the cost over time. Just 13 percent of co-op consumer-members said that they would pay more for solar energy.
“Our consumer-members think community solar projects are a compelling option,” says Mike Couick, president and CEO of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. “It means they don’t have to install panels on their roof, nor do they have to worry about their construction and maintenance. The co-ops do the heavy-lifting so members can access a renewable resource they say they want.”
“There are co-op consumer-members who want the benefits of solar power, but they can’t install their own system,” says Bloodworth. He notes that almost half of all U.S. households are unable to access rooftop solar because they rent their home, have a roof unsuitable for solar production or cannot afford to pay for the system installation and maintenance.
In most traditional community solar arrangements, the local electric cooperative handles the construction, operation, and maintenance of the solar installation. The consumer-members participate through a monthly “subscription” and receive a bill credit based on how much energy is produced by the solar array.