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Community systems offer alternative paths for solar growth

MINNEAPOLIS — Strolling his church’s rooftop among 630 solar panels, Bishop Richard Howell Jr. acknowledged climate change isn’t the most pressing concern for his predominantly Black congregation — even though it disproportionately harms people of color and the poor.

“The violence we’re having, shootings, killings, COVID-19,” Howell said wearily. “You’re trying to save families, and right now no one’s really talking about global warming.”

Yet his Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis welcomed the opportunity to become one of many “community solar” providers popping up around the U.S. amid surging demand for renewable energy.

Larger than home rooftop systems but smaller than utility-scale complexes, they’re located atop buildings, or on abandoned factory grounds and farms. Individuals or companies subscribe to portions of energy sent to the grid and get credits that reduce their electricity bills. The model attracts people who can’t afford rooftop installations or live where solar is not accessible, such as renters and owners of dwellings without direct sunlight.

“We’re helping fight this climate war and blessing families with lower costs,” Howell said.

Nearly 1.600 community solar projects, or “gardens,” are operating nationwide, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Most are in Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York and Colorado, although 41 states and Washington, D.C., have at least one. Florida has relatively few but they’re big enough to make the state a leading producer.

Together they generate roughly 3.4 gigawatts ’ enough for about 650,000 homes — or roughly 3% of the nation’s solar output. But more than 4.3 gigawatts are expected to go online within five years, says the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“We can have a cheaper, cleaner and more equitable system for everyone if we build smaller, local resources,” said Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a trade group. Yet it’s unclear how big a role community solar will play in the U.S. transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

The Biden administration is continuing a $15 million Energy Department initiative begun in 2019 to support its growth, particularly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The department announced a goal in October of powering the equivalent of 5 million households with community solar by 2025, saving consumers $1 billion.

But power regulation happens at the state level, where interest groups are fighting over what defines community solar and who should generate it.

The Solar Energy Industries Association says the label should apply only where private developers and nonprofit cooperatives, not just utilities, can operate solar gardens and send power to the grid. The association says 19 states and Washington, D.C., have such policies.

Utilities say having too many players could unravel regulatory structures that assure reliable electric service. They warn of disasters such as last winter’s deadly blackout in Texas.

“You’ve got lots of individual profit-motivated actors trying to make a buck,” said Brandon Hofmeister, a senior vice president with Consumers Energy. The Michigan power company is fighting state bills that would allow non-utility community solar providers.

Others say utilities are simply ducking competition.

“What’s really driving the rise of community solar is the free market,” said John Freeman, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, a trade group. “It saves money and promotes a cleaner environment.”

Growing pains

Community solar took off in Minnesota after lawmakers in 2013 required Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, to establish a program open to other developers. It has more than 400 gardens — tops in the U.S. — with nearly 500 applications pending.

Keith Dent and Noy Koumalasy, who are married, say subscribing to the Shiloh Temple garden has lowered their bills an average of $98 per year.

“You’re generating your own power and saving a little money,” said Dent, who helped install several complexes built by Cooperative Energy Futures, a local nonprofit.

Xcel, which is required to buy the gardens’ electricity, says the state formula for valuing solar energy makes it too expensive. The costs, spread among all the utility’s customers, essentially force non-subscribers to subsidize community solar, spokesman Matthew Lindstrom said.

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