Six Steps to Deploying a Successful Community Solar Program

Six Steps to Deploying a Successful Community Solar Program

Launching and maintaining a successful community solar program is a complex process that varies from one market to the next, and we oftentimes receive questions from recently-enrolled customers who are curious about the status of their solar array’s construction or interconnection (when the solar array is connected to the grid and begins producing energy).

 

Regardless of a solar array’s location, there are several behind-the-scenes projects occurring before, during and after the customer sign-up stage that impact array construction and grid interconnection. Here are six of the most significant ones:

 

Project Finance

Community solar project financing isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach because there is usually a diverse pool of customers participating in a community solar program – typically a mix of individuals, businesses, and institutional organizations like municipalities. As such, there can be a more complicated risk analysis making it more difficult to secure equitable project funding. Financing hurdles can be overcome, but they tend to add time to the project schedule.

 

Project Development

At the start of a community solar project, some primary areas of focus include site acquisition and permitting, system design and procurement, site preparation and installation, project commissioning, and operations and maintenance (O&M) procedures.

 

CEC’s project sites are chosen based on convenient access to the grid, maximum solar benefit, lowest cost and land type. In some cases, the land is owned by a city or state and in other cases CEC works with private land owners, like farmers, who agree to make some of their land available for solar array development. In either case, CEC works with government officials to develop the land in accordance with various zoning, development and regulatory laws.

 

Land owners can find solar array siting to be a great use of their property because it provides stable revenue with minimal impact to their land. After the project lease period is up, the land is returned to them in its original state. (If you are a land owner and want to investigate whether your property can be used as a future solar array site, please contact us!)

 

Workers install a CEC solar array.
Pictured: A recent CEC solar array installation. We work with local contractors to build and install each array project. Their community relationships and expertise with regards to regional solar array installations is invaluable when working to complete build-outs as quickly as possible.

 

Legal, Securities and Consumer Protection

A successful community solar project depends heavily on generating positive customer experiences. So, it’s imperative for community solar developers and project stakeholders to comply with all legal, tax, and regulatory requirements and provide customers and potential customers with comprehensive and clear disclosures. This is one of the most complex aspects of community solar program development.

 

Community solar programming requires compliance with utility, business, land use, tax and securities regulations. Participation structures can be highly tailored, and state regulations vary widely. Regulatory considerations can include a maximum kilowatt/megawatt capacity, a minimum number and type of customers, geographic restrictions on members, and a maximum amount of offset credit allowed per member.

 

Operations and Maintenance (O&M)

O&M may not be an obvious customer-facing component of a community solar program, but it is one that can have a direct impact on long-term program success. A professionally-designed and maintained solar facility maximizes equipment efficiency and life span, which in turn maximizes performance and reduces cost. This is an important part of the value proposition for new customers, yet it is also equally important for customer retention.

 

O&M services that need to be in place before interconnection include electrical maintenance and system checks, panel additions and replacement, insurance for the array, monitoring of the array’s production and weather station monitoring.

 

Accounting

The accounting and billing arrangement is a key element of successful community solar program execution. Each participant’s share of a solar array’s electricity output must be accurately monitored and reported to the utility, the production is then merged with the customer’s corresponding credit rate, and the utility, in turn, provides credits to each participant’s monthly bill.

 

Software available today (like CSP) can now automate this process, making it more efficient, reliable and cost-effective than any manually-executed process. Comprehensive software platforms obtain production data, seamlessly integrate with existing legacy billing systems, apply credits directly on customer bills, provide all reporting, and allow developers and utilities to manage multiple facilities and ensure that customers are getting their full benefits.

 

Customer Engagement

Ongoing customer engagement is oftentimes the most important component of a successful community solar program. Utilities and project owners can maintain and enhance valuable customer relations through customer engagement platforms. This type of customer engagement increases program participation levels and maximizes participant retention. Much like a facility’s O&M function, “Customer E&M” is the often underestimated and undervalued process of ongoing, long-term customer engagement and management. Continued engagement helps customers make a strong connection with their renewable energy assets.

 

A customer-facing online portal, like MyOwnCleanEnergy, should provide visibility and education, including energy production, bill savings, environmental benefits, updates and account messaging, and shareable information viewable across platforms.

 

What’s Next

Despite the vast complexity in getting a project to completion and generating clean renewable energy for its customers, some of the country’s largest investor-owned utilities and most advanced co-ops and municipal utilities are increasingly turning to community solar solutions to serve a rapidly-growing number of customers. And retail demand is escalating as consumers become more educated and excited by community solar and its value proposition.

 

With every program, solar providers, regulators, utilities, and advocates have a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers to deploying successful community solar programs in their respective markets, which further helps streamline the interconnection process in the future.

 

Despite the vast complexity in getting a project to completion and generating clean renewable energy for its customers, some of the country’s largest investor-owned utilities and most advanced co-ops and municipal utilities are increasingly turning to community solar solutions to serve a rapidly-growing number of customers. And retail demand is escalating as consumers become more educated and excited by community solar and its value proposition.

With every program, solar providers, regulators, utilities, and advocates have a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers to deploying successful community solar programs in their respective markets, which further helps streamline the interconnection process in the future.