Hundreds of industry leaders gathered at the Community Solar Power Forum in Boston last week to discuss expansion of community solar across the country, as well as the opportunities and challenges for achieving the next phase of growth.
The two-day summit included panels, education, networking and in-depth discussions with CCSA representatives and other national thought leaders around new business models, revenue streams, policies and politics of passing community solar programs.
Here are five key takeaways from the forum on the trends shaping the industry and where the community solar industry is heading:
Finding solutions to interconnection challenges is essential. The industry needs policymakers, utilities and regulators to work together to establish goals and incentives that lead to better interconnection outcomes. Industry leaders called for more transparency around interconnection challenges, and said working closer with utilities and developing cost-effective policies and regulations that account for all the beneficiaries of a strong distribution grid will speed up the deployment of planned community solar projects. There was a lot of talk about the recent CCSA white paper released with Local Solar for All, which recommends strategies for overcoming the barriers around interconnection.
Federal support is coming, but states still need to pass bills. If passed, the federal funding and tax incentives for community solar included in the Build Back Better bill should drive down the costs of development and lead to lower program costs and higher customer savings. That should help create urgency, but states will still need to adopt their own programs if industry and the Department of Energy is going to meet its ambitious community solar goals. Strong bill sponsors and diverse and powerful coalitions are essential to create urgency and overcome strong utility opposition to competitive community solar programs.
Industry is taking strides towards making community solar more equitable, but more work remains. More community solar programs are creating carve-outs for low- and moderate-income customers, but getting those customers to sign up is still a challenge. An overreliance on FICO scores, onerous contracts and a lack of community trust are some of the obstacles that have historically prevented lower income customers from participating in the clean energy revolution. Lawmakers in some states have also unintentionally created barriers around income eligibility. Community solar providers can connect with more of these customers through community outreach, improving accessibility and offering meaningful cost savings on bills based on dollar amounts, rather than rate decreases. The industry also faces challenges when it comes to logistics, such as determining income eligibility and how to consolidate billing for community solar to streamline the process for customers.
Much of the industry’s growth is coming from existing community solar markets. New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Massachusetts are leading the nation with tremendous potential for growth and paths to achieve it. To ensure programs in existing markets continue to expand, markets need to evolve credit rate structures, streamline interconnection and ensure a long-term path for continued program capacity. Read more about forecasts for community solar growth in the recently released Wood Mackenzie report.
Next community solar frontiers: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. The challenges to opening new community solar markets are plentiful, not the least of which are utility opposition and a lack of political urgency.
In states with Republican-led legislatures where there is potential for new markets, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, community solar’s messaging must also evolve to better resonate with party leaders. Free market benefits, competition, choice and energy security are just a few of the messages around community solar that are resonating with Republicans.
It’s also more important than ever to build effective campaigns using a more diverse group of stakeholders. The more industry leaders can energize customers, farmers, landowners, cities and towns and others who are directly benefiting from community solar, the more they can be put forward as public voices who can share their experiences and broaden support.