SolarCity growing community ‘solar gardens’

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Even without having a rooftop to host a PV system, customers of a utility in the US will be able to tap into community ‘solar gardens’ developed by installer and leasing company SolarCity.

The company, which is among the biggest PV providers in the US residential market, is making what is thought to be its first foray into community solar. Under the new programme, SolarCity said, customers of Minnesota-headquartered Xcel Energy will be able to make anticipated savings on their electricity bills of around 11.5%.

Currently, large swathes of the population in the US – and elsewhere – are unable to host PV arrays. People in rented accommodation without ownership of or access to roof space, or who have rooftops but which are unsuitable for PV due to shading issues, are too such example. Municipal facilities, like schools, will also be eligible to join and the scheme is also open to homeowners deterred by the upfront costs of buying their own PV system.

SolarCity’s new venture will allow Xcel Energy customers to purchase electricity generated from up to 100 solar power plants, or “community solar gardens” as the installer has called them, in the Sherbourne and Wright counties of Minnesota. The plants will each be up to 1MW (AC) generation capacity.

Prices of electricity produced by the new installations have already been given. It will be sold at US$0.13 per kWh, while Xcel Energy will also credit subscribers to the scheme with US$0.147 per kWh of power the utility purchases from the gardens. The credit mechanism will operate for up to 25 years.

Community solar schemes are already mandated by law in the state, having been approved in 2013. A local news outlet, the Minnesota Star Tribune, reported that SolarCity had said it will invest US$200 million into Xcel’s solar gardens. Minnesota’s solar gardens are restricted to 1MW generation capacity maximum, which perhaps explains SolarCity’s strategy. According to the Tribune, a Denver, Colorado-headquartered developer, SunShare, runs a similar programme that it aims to sign up 5,000 customers by December.

While the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) financial support for solar is soon to end, SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive was quoted by the Tribune as saying he thought community solar could still work post-ITC. Rive also said he expected the Xcel scheme to be oversubscribed and waiting lists to be necessary. Minnesota has around 6,000 residents living in rented accommodation.  

Elsewhere, microinverter specialist Enphase announced the completion of a 900kW (DC) community solar garden in Massachusetts, developed with local installer My Generation Energy. A non-profit consumer cooperative will benefit from the commercial operation of the site. Other big players in US PV are also starting to take an interest in community solar initiatives – First Solar bought an equity interest in Clean Energy Collective (CEC), a developer of community-owned ground mount installations, at the end of last year. A subsidiary of investment bank Morgan Stanley, MS Solar Solutions (MSSS), has also partnered with CEC on community solar since March.

These moves could be seen as a move to tap an otherwise underserved market – SolarCity quoted recent figures from GTM Research that show that despite the enormous increases in total PV generation capacity in the US in recent years, only around 66MW of community solar have been developed in the country to date.

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