Solar ACCESS – Community Solar Project

“Plant the Seeds of Solar, Harvest the Power of the Sun”

Solar ACCESS: Appalachian Citizens’ Community Economy Solar Subscriptions

UpGrade Ohio’s Solar ACCESS project was developed to provide solar electric (PV) energy to low-to-moderate income (LMI) populations as a competitive project in the Department of Energy’s Solar in Your Community Challenge. The Solar in Your Community Challenge is a $5 million contest to support innovative and replicable community-based solar business models and programs that will bring solar to underserved communities.

The innovative component of the Solar ACCESS project was to create a mechanism for residents to contribute their own money to a pool of funds needed to install solar PV systems on public buildings that serve the low-to-moderate income community. Initially, three project sites were selected, and the largest site, a public school, was first in line to be developed. The Solar ACCESS team initiated a design wherein community supporters would subscribe to own a share of the project, and together with the financial support of local investors, the project’s broker, and the contracted solar installer, the installation would generate savings for the public school, investment returns for the investor, and incremental on-bill savings for the community subscribers.

Solar ACCESS aimed to create community solar subscription shares at $100 per share for a 10-year term. Solar subscribers would receive a monthly on-bill credit based on share size. The low share price was selected to create greater access to the solar market for LMI residents who wanted to support solar in their community. Through a utility bill administrator and processor for community solar subscription holders, subscribers could pay for their electric utility bill and receive their solar subscription credit through an online billing system.

In the process of designing this structure, we learned that this model added complexity to the contractual process for a local public school project, protracting negotiations. It also added confusion for potential subscribers who would be required to join a new billing platform in order to subscribe to a local community solar project. Rather than creating a way to increase access to the solar market, this model would have added more steps. Even if it may be attractive to individuals who were already interested in supporting community solar efforts, it would likely be an unsustainable model going forward. Our goal to attract more people to the solar marketplace was becoming overly complicated, so we went back to the drawing board.

Building To Scale

One idea that had been considered in the initial community solar brainstorming sessions was working with our long-standing partner, the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (SOPEC).  The plan was to somehow utilize funds in their existing electric aggregation program to fund community solar projects. When the Solar in Your Community Challenge launched, SOPEC was still growing operations and expanding aggregation services to member communities. In late 2017, we pitched the idea of establishing an opt-out community solar program to SOPEC, and the timing was right to build a pilot program together.

On January 8th, SOPEC introduced an ordinance to the City Council of Athens, Ohio. The ordinance called for a 2 mill “carbon fee” to be added to the electric bills of Athens residents who were participating in the opt-out electric aggregation program. This fee would cost an additional $1.60 to $1.80 per month for the average Athens opt-out aggregation customer at that time, or about $21 a year. The fee would be placed in a fund that would generate around $200,000 per year. These funds would then be used to install community-funded solar arrays on public buildings. Pending City Council approval, Athens residents will be given a choice to vote on passage of this measure on the May 2018 ballot.  If approved, this Solar ACCESS initiative will launch in Fall 2018.

To create more access to the solar market, the Solar ACCESS team will continue to explore new opportunities for solar supporters — those already in the City of Athens opt-out community solar program and those that aren’t customers of SOPEC — to provide more of their own funds to grow community solar. The vision for these subscribers could be the same as before, with a nominal price point to purchase a full solar panel, a portion of a solar panel, or a block of solar output generated from a full solar array.

The Solar ACCESS team is committed to bringing solar to all Americans, especially as part of UpGrade Ohio’s mission to drive demand for clean energy in Ohio. Our replication model for Solar ACCESS would aim to develop the organizational capacity to provide both technical and project development assistance for dozens of communities across the state of Ohio and in states that have a deregulated electricity market, or otherwise allow community choice aggregation. Solar ACCESS would offer a collection of best practices and services for creating aggregation-based community solar projects and programs.