Virtual Solar on a budget and without even owning a roof would become a reality if SB 843 were to pass in the State of California. The bill would expand access to virtual net-metered renewable electricity say renewable power enthusiasts, but not all community solar power advocates in attendance at the San Francisco Bay Area Community Solar Confluence: Bringing Community Solar to California.
"While solar is a strong and growing business in California, at least 75% of households and businesses cannot participate primarily because they are renters and do not own their own roofs, enjoy ample credit ratings, nor adequate solar resources," explained Tom Price and Brandon Keefe of local solar developer Clean Path Ventures, part of a diverse and growing coalition of supporters that includes business, school, and environmental groups such as Small Business California, School Energy Coalition, Community Solar California, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Vote Solar, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
SB 843 (Wolk) Energy: electrical corporations: City of Davis PVUSA solar facility: Community-based renewable energy self-generation program
Based on a successful model established between Pacific Gas & Electric, the City of Davis and the PVUSA solar facility in Davis, Senate Bill 843 would give households, businesses, schools, and public agencies the option of receiving a credit on their power bills for the clean power they purchase at an off-site renewable energy facility.
The bill’s author is State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who serves on the Select Committee on Green Jobs, Solar, Wind, and Clean Technologies, and has authored several bills to expand access to clean, renewable energy during her term in the State Legislature.
Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, is cosponsoring the measure with the City of Davis as part of his initiative to make it easier for schools to increase their energy efficiency.
Keefe explains, "The solar lease programs already available within the solar industry can be great opportunities if you are a homeowner, have a FICA score over 750, and either a significant upfront cost or sign onto a lease for two decades, but that’s far from what’s possible." He lauds SB 843 as a "transformative opportunity to create access, jobs, and tax revenue, without using public funds."
How SB 843 works for homes or businesses without roofs
In a recent article that compares the potential to the opening of the California Gold Rush, Price explains how it would work for those who don’t meet the criteria for rooftop solar. "So, rent in San Francisco?" said Price. "No problem, you could subscribe to a solar array in, say, Fremont, and the credit will just show up on your PG&E bill.”
Keefe furthers that, “Costco is an example of how to pool resources to get an item in bulk to make it affordable to a greater portion of the market,” then showed the simplicity of the model in a diagram pictured this article. The system subscriber would make out a monthly check for their electricity, but send that to the community renewable power plant of their choice. This renewable power plant would send usage data to the utility the subscriber is now a customer of, and the utility per law, would credit the subscriber’s electricity bill.
Under SB 843, all energy consumers could utilize renewable energy from projects that range in size with a maximum up to 20 MW in size. Estimated economic activity from the construction of up to 2 gigawatts of solar facilities are up to $6 billion generating up to $500 million in state and local tax revenue assuming an average tax rate of 8.25%, and creating up to 48,000 jobs per their analyses.
Not all solar power and environmental groups fully support SB843
Al Weinrub, Coordinator, of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, the Bay Area’s largest clean energy coalition, with 90 affiliated member organizations, including environmental justice, social justice, environmental, business, and community groups, states on their LCEA legislative page that "As written and amended, SB 843 would not promote the development of community-based renewable electricity generation, but would favor large developments owned and operated by solar service providers. SB 843 would need significant changes to be promoted as community-based renewable projects, or community solar gardens." See LCEA's SB 843 analysis.
Joy Hughes, Solar Gardens Institute, in Moffat, Colorado, stands to gain as a potential developer of a number of these ‘shared facilities.’ While Hughes therefore certainly does support SB843, she and others with similar viewpoints such as Hannah Masterjohn of Vote Solar, also agrees more could be done to develop the community nature of the legislation. Hughes specifically would like to see the legislation more closely follow the Interstate Renewable Energy Council's "Model Program Rules for Community Renewables."
Below are 4 pillars that ideally, all community power advocates can agree on.
True Community Power ought to be local to the county level at most
“As currently written,” Hughes continues, "SB 843 would allow subscribers to be located anywhere within a utility's service area. PG&E's service area extends hundreds of miles from Del Norte County to east of Bakersfield. This could lead to a customer in Crescent City subscribing to a solar array in the Mojave Desert. There are small solar companies who work even in far northern California that could benefit by installing solar gardens in sunny microclimates closer to home."
In Colorado, subscribers must be located in the same county as the solar garden. This was included to prevent a situation where all solar gardens would be located in the sunny San Luis Valley, increasing pressure for transmission lines to export power to the front range.
Proponents of the bill however, argue that California’s situation is not identical to that of Colorado as that model depends on both full retail rates and a huge incentive paid for renewable energy certificates, neither of which is needed in California.
More arrays producing less power each, rather than one large array better serves community power.
Hughes makes the point that a single large 20-megawatt solar array is typically a quarter of a square mile. This is an area that could easily become entirely covered by a single cloud, where as several smaller arrays would likely produce only a fraction of blockage, while building in resilience and capturing more consistent and predictable generation over greater geography.
Price's concern is that, “more arrays rather than fewer raises costs, which will be passed onto subscribers. The great thing about SB 843 as written is that is lets community groups decide how to organize themselves, and build any array they want and can afford."
Hughes adds to her argument that smaller more local systems also utilize fewer transmission lines "It's more efficient to have generation closer to the load" she says, "A larger number of smaller solar plants will reduce intermittency." This is important because natural gas is often used to buffer intermittency.
The harvest of natural gas has come under fire as socially irresponsible given how the new practice of fracking may contaminate a community’s drinking water resources.
John Farrell from the Institute for Local self-reliance (ILSR) has calculated that far less natural gas would be required to buffer intermittency for 25 single Megawatt arrays versus just one centralized 25 Megawatt array based upon weather data from the L.A. Basin.
Handling intermittency issues in the interim until energy storage is a reality
Price cautions “Anything that’s not petroleum/ carbon based should be encouraged. To somehow imply that larger arrays is promoting natural gas is inaccurate, misleading, and inappropriate.”
John Farrell does recognize in the article stated and linked to above, that as more and more technical research is completed, the findings are consistently showing that the amount of backup power decreases as more distributed renewables are put in place and the grid is made ‘smarter.’” As the quantity of renewable energy generators rises further, energy storage may play as much or more of a role than backup generation.”
As many members of a community ought to be able to subscribe to community power as possible
Legislation should instruct the CPUC, advocates Hughes, to establish policy that encourages a mix of participants in community shared solar arrays that is similar to the mix of customer classes (residential, commercial, government) in a given utility territory.
In Colorado for example, each solar garden must include at least 5% qualified low-income subscribers. This has led to solar gardens being proposed with 95% large, high credit offtakers.
However, in California, efforts by Senator Wolk and SB 843 supporters to encourage the participation of energy consumers with low to moderate income is one reason why the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green for All Campaign have endorsed the bill.
Under SB 843, 2 million low income customers in California would have the same opportunity as any other customer to access renewable energy, according to Price.
Price furthers, “It’s about opportunity versus mandates. There are Verizon customers, and there are Metro PCS customers. All have access to a range of choices, but no one is mandating that every single person, regardless of their ability to pay, be given a cell phone and unlimited minutes.”
Call to Action on SB 843
Public supportive of the bill ought to contact their state representatives to voice advocacy.
This article may be re-published with permission from the author and ideally, but not necessarily, crediting Examiner.