Thanks to a champion in the state senate, the bill convened unlikely allies to pass with overwhelming support.
Today Delaware passed community solar legislation that updates existing statute and will enable more residents and businesses to take advantage of renewable energy resources while generating income for participating landowners. The bill, sponsored and shepherded by state Sen. Stephanie Hansen and state Representative Bill Bush, passed both the House and Senate nearly unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. John Carney after a relatively short but thorough process.
Community solar projects allow farmers and others to lease a portion of underutilized land to community solar developers, who install solar facilities that are shared by local subscribers. By doing so, the landowners generate additional income from the leasing, while more community members can buy into solar power without the added upfront infrastructure costs. This removes financial barriers to solar energy, and Delaware’s bill requires that each community solar project serves at least 15% low-income customers, who might otherwise face challenges accessing renewable energy.
“We built this policy not for low-income communities or environmental justice organizations, but with them,” said Dustyn Thompson, volunteer and community outreach coordinator for the Delaware Sierra Club, which worked with advocates to pass the legislation. “We did a really good job of making sure that people who are not typically heard were a part of the process.”
That process began in earnest over seven months ago, when Hansen, who recently retired from a 20-year career as an environmental lawyer and became chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, convened the first of several energy and climate forums in the state. By bringing together diverse voices, the coalition that formed was able to reach a consensus on an issue that has been contemplated for years but could never get over the finish line.
“To get something completed with such a diverse set of stakeholders is a testament to Senator Hansen’s ability to organize groups and drive consensus-driven outcomes,” said Salar Naini, executive vice president of business development at Turning Point Energy, which helped push for community solar in Delaware. “Reaching consensus is hard.”
Seven months ago, that consensus was far from guaranteed.
“One of the comments we’d gotten was, ‘I don’t think we need to do community solar,’” said Hansen, who faced initial questioning from Delaware’s Caesar Rodney Institute, a conservative think tank. “I wanted to make sure that the person who raised this issue was part of my stakeholder group so that I could understand that point of view and, if possible, get them on board. I wanted to gather people from all the groups that have an interest in this issue to establish a common goal. You can’t just throw together legislation and hope it will pass.”
In the ensuing months, Hansen regularly gathered stakeholders including Sierra Club’s Thompson, Turning Point Energy’s Naini, and hundreds of others. Among the compromises they reached, the final legislation allows multiple ownership models, increases the potential size of community solar systems, eliminates setup requirements that could have created barriers to entry, and ensures the Delaware Department of Justice will work with the Public Service Commission to institute consumer protections.
“Every person who participated can say the bill represented all our collective views,” added Naini. “We may not agree with every single thing in there, but compromises were made by all parties to get to the eventual outcome.”
Thompson agreed. “The process that we went about, getting to where we ended up, is significant and should be used in other states—not just what the bill contains, but how we got to the bill,” he said.
It will be a couple of years until consumers can subscribe to community solar projects. The protections written into the bill give the Public Service Commission and the Delaware DOJ until March 11 of next year to write all the rules and regulations, which will determine how quickly community solar projects can get into the ground. But even though it could be a couple of years before Delawareans start reaping the benefits of community solar, lawmakers and advocates remain impressed that the legislation came together as quickly as it did.
“This is an integral step toward realizing Delaware’s goal of 40 percent renewable energy by 2035,” said James Feinstein, Senior Policy Manager of Arcadia, the nation’s largest community solar subscriber manager. “What’s more, community solar is truly a people’s product that will deliver value to everyone in the state, not just landowners and direct program participants. We are thrilled to see this diverse set of stakeholders come together to achieve such a thoughtful, impactful bill,” he said.
For Hansen, this rapid win is not a culmination but a starting point.
“Because this worked out so well, I’ve contacted all of the stakeholders again and said, now that we have this community solar bill, there are other related [energy] issues that came up and that have to be solved,” she said. “Everyone will get a break until August, but then we’re going to come back and address them. They don’t all have to be addressed through legislation, but someone needs to drive them to a solution.”