Community Solar is Coming to Oregon

By Bridget Callahan — Sustainable Northwest and Solar Oregon Board Member

Oregonians overwhelmingly support solar energy. For some it’s a financial investment, for others it may be reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Solar has the power to create local, family-wage jobs, increase community resilience and energy independence, and empower residents to control their own energy production. And while solar has enjoyed a rapid rise in deployment, the resource still lags far behind other energy resources, and many populations have been left out of the solar boom.

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Why is that?

Solar in Oregon has largely been driven by a decline in prices paired with smart policies. Net metering is a system in which solar owners can “bank” solar generation in the summer when it is sunny, and use them during the winter when the sun is less prevalent. Oregon also enabled the creation of renewable energy cooperatives, similar to other member/investor ventures such as REI and Bi-Mart. We’ve also seen not-so-great policy decisions that have immediately impacted the market. Most notably, the Oregon legislature allowed a lucrative tax credit sunset in 2017. The Residential Energy Tax Credit, or RETC, offered up to a $6,000 tax credit for homeowners who installed solar and was available to everyone in the state. After the RETC sunset, the solar industry saw the first decline in jobs since the industry took record, and available incentives are now highly contingent on your utility and zip code. (New legislation, House Bill 2618, is making its way through the Oregon legislature to replace the RETC with a straight-forward solar rebate. Your legislators would love to hear from you!)

While policy has been a primary driver in the deployment of the market, an increasing number of Oregonians are expressing a desire for access and choice of their energy sources. A lively discussion is taking place across the country, with many organizations piloting innovative finance and project models that deliver the benefits of solar to underserved communities, vulnerable populations, and residents who need energy savings the most.

The rise of shared solar

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As a result of consumer demand and emerging technologies, a new wave of shared solar models are emerging across the country. These models seek to overcome traditional barriers of going solar, such as upfront financing and physical limitations. Oregon has recently joined the ranks of other states by creating a Community Solar Program, whereby owners or subscribers can participate in off-site (or on-site) shared solar projects, aggregating many meters from different geographic areas.

Why community solar? Most homes, in fact, cannot accommodate efficient solar panels. Perhaps the roof will need to be replaced in a number of years, or a beloved oak tree shades your rooftop. A growing number of people are choosing to rent a home or live in apartment units, which reduces any incentive to buy solar for a rooftop you do not own. Then there’s upfront financing that has priced solar out of reach for many. Non-profit and public facilities such as libraries and schools do not pay taxes which makes tax credits, one of the traditional financial tools, challenging to work around.

So while solar deployment has increased, traditional barriers are leaving most residents and facilities behind. The purpose of community solar is to increase access and benefits of solar to new and underserved customers. Also, if designed right, these projects have the ability to bring local economic development to the community.

The Community Solar Program

In 2016 the Oregon legislature passed Senate Bill 1547, which enabled the Oregon Community Solar Program. As mentioned, this program now allows voluntary owners or subscribers to share the costs and benefits of a shared solar energy project.

The legislation left many elements to be determined by the Oregon Public Utility Commission. As a result, the program has been undergoing a multi-year rule making process, engaging a large group of stakeholders and incoming program administrators to determine how the program will work.

Here’s the big caveat: This program hasn’t launched, but will soon! And because of this, now is the perfect time to start thinking about community solar.

Here’s what we do know. Project sizes can range from 25 kilowatts all the way up to 3 megawatts. The average home installs roughly 5 kilowatt system, so these projects could be as small as a few neighbors joining together and sharing a project.

The program is limited to customers in Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, and Idaho Power territory. And you may only own or subscribe into a project in your specific utility territory, so Pacific Power customers would need to subscribe into a project in Pacific Power territory.

And to ensure that there is a community component in every project, there needs to be at least five customers, and no one customer can own or subscribe to more than 40% of any project. There are carve outs for residential and small commercial customers of each project, so that projects are not built solely for large industrial users. Oregon legislators wanted to make sure that underserved populations can participate, and created an additional carve-out specifically for low-income residential customers. In fact, 10% of the entire program must be made available for low-income

There will be many similar considerations just like traditional solar projects, such as siting, permitting, interconnection, and financing. But we’re excited about the new partnership structures and opportunities.

Sustainable Northwest has been working directly with communities across the state to advance their community solar goals. We’ve done this by bringing in technical assistance, creating strong local partnerships, and driving investments to design and develop community-led projects. Throughout 2019, we will continue to develop and deliver these services so that projects will be “shovel ready” by the program launch.

Community solar is just one driver in this sea of energy transformation, but our excitement in this arena comes from the opportunity to create local and tangible economic, ecological, and community benefit. And it’s this triple bottom line that Sustainable Northwest so ardently champions.

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