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SEPA project aims to spread community solar

By K Kaufmann

A $705,830 competitive award from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative will allow the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) to launch a groundbreaking research initiative aimed at accelerating the spread of community solar energy programs across the country.

Drawing on expertise from utilities, solar developers, nonprofits and other organizations, the project will develop easily adaptable models for community solar program design and marketing to help utilities and other developers stand up more of these locally sited installations. The SEPA study is one of 15 projects receiving a competitive award as part of SunShot’s Solar Market Pathways program.

White House gives a shot-out to Solar Market Pathways projects here. 

“Say ‘community solar’ and — depending on where you are — the term could have different meanings,” said Becky Campbell, SEPA’s Senior Manager of Research and Advisory Services, who will lead the project. “For some, it’s a ‘solar garden’ allowing individual customers to lease one or more panels, while for others, it could be a remote or virtual net metering program that lets groups of individuals co-own a single project, with each receiving a utility bill credit proportional to their share.

Aerial View -Duck River Electric
The 2012 ribbon-cutting event for a community solar project at the Duck River Electric Membership Cooperative in Shelbyville, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of Duck River EMC.)

“The diversity of these programs shows how popular they are becoming,” Campbell said. “But this kind of multiplicity can also be an obstacle, slowing the development of basic design models that could be adapted to local conditions and spur even more widespread growth of community solar.”

The SEPA project will combine the development of such models with consumer research to better understand public attitudes toward community solar and create effective marketing strategies. Key components of the two-year research project will include:

  • • Program model development: SEPA will form a cross-industry working group to identify and assess different community solar programs being used nationwide, with a focus on the cost-benefit values for customers, utilities and the solar industry. Based on this research, SEPA and the working group will release a report laying out a number of core models for community solar.


    • • Research on market demographics and messaging: Working with Shelton Group, a marketing research and consulting firm, SEPA will conduct in-depth research — including surveys and focus groups — on how different market segments view community solar. The goal here will be to connect the resulting market insights with model program designs to develop effective communications strategies and best practices for targeting and expanding community solar markets.


  •  Practical applications: In addition to publicly available reports, SEPA also plans a series of workshops, webinars, articles and other public education efforts on the project results. The SunShot funding will also allow SEPA to work with eight different utilities to help them set up community solar programs.


The SEPA project, and SunShot funding, come at a pivotal time for community solar, which was tapped in a number of 2014 year-end lists as a trend likely to drive solar market growth into 2015. At the same time, best practices and policies surrounding these projects are still being developed and debated on a state-by-state basis.

For example, some solar advocates have argued that community solar, by definition, should be locally controlled, with minimal utility involvement. Yet a recent SEPA survey of community solar programs across the country found 57 projects online or in the planning phases, 87 percent of which were developed by utilities.

Read the Executive Summary to SEPA’s community solar report here.

Duke Energy sees community solar as an opportunity to expand this energy resource, bringing it to customers who may not have direct access to renewable energy,” said Justin LaRoche, the company’s business development manager. “It is a natural extension of our existing business of providing reliable electric service to our customers.”

Duke is one of several utilities that have already committed to taking part in the project’s industry working group, along with private developers and nonprofit research groups.

The Clean Energy Collective, a Colorado-based private developer with more than a dozen projects in four states, sees no fundamental conflict between community solar and utilities, said Tom Hunt, the company’s Vice President for Business Development. The collective will also be part of the working group.

“Clean Energy Collective has partnered with utilities nationwide to build community solar,” Hunt said. “Each situation is unique. At the same time, we know that replicable business models make for better customer experiences and lower costs. We see this project as an opportunity to take best practices nationwide and further catalyze the growth of community solar.”

Find out what community solar projects are near you with SEPA’s community solar tracking chart here.

The marketing piece has also been missing from the picture, with utilities often having to experiment with different business models and messaging to spur customer sign-ups for individual projects.

The SEPA survey found that while about half of the projects were fully or almost fully subscribed, a quarter had subscription rates of 50 percent or less.

“We’ve been polling Americans about the attitudes and behaviors related to energy consumption for more than 10 years, so we are very much dialed into perceptions of and desire for solar energy,” said Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO of Shelton Group. “For this project, we’ll evaluate reactions to specific models for community solar among both residential consumers and businesses to identify what makes these programs compelling and the potential differences in perceptions by customer class, demographics, industry sectors and geography.”

The year-end announcement that First Solar, a solar module manufacturer and project developer, had made a major investment in Clean Energy Collective and will provide panels for many of the organization’s future community solar projects is another sign of the sector’s growth potential. Almost half the utilities in the SEPA study said they were already planning to expand existing community solar programs.

Want to keep up on all the news on utility solar? Follow SEPA on Twitter @utilitysolar.

“First Solar supports the notion that utility customers should have access to solar through utility offered programs,” said Eran Mahrer, First Solar’s Senior Director for Utilities. “Community solar programs are an excellent way for customers to access cost-effective solar deployed in line with utility objectives.

The Arizona-based company will also be part of the SEPA project’s working group.

Julia Hamm, SEPA’s CEO and President, sees the community solar project as creating its own models for cross-industry collaboration and better utility response to growing customer demand for clean energy.

“People want choices in their energy supply; they want solar,” Hamm said. “From careful siting at key locations on the grid to providing local jobs, we see huge benefits in these projects. Having basic, easily adaptable models should help minimize risks and uncertainties and help more utilities and communities make solar local, affordable and available to as many people as possible.”

K Kaufmann is SEPA’s Communications Manager. She can be reached at [email protected].