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Community Solar: States Are Testing Designs While Driving Forward

Minnesota, Oregon, New York case studies

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2016
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Community solar began with a promise of vastly increasing access to solar. Today more than a dozen states have "shared solar" policies. The federal government has made it a priority (through the National Community Solar Partnership). And various stakeholders are claiming community solar has hit a critical tipping point, and is here to stay as an essential component of our energy future.

This spring, states across the country are testing the practical implementation of community solar and the promise of its broad reach. This article limits its review to three states that span the country east to west, and represent varying stages of community solar development.

In the east, New York launched a program recently, which is drawing heavily from the state's larger Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding, REV, that aims to redefine the future energy system. In the middle is Minnesota, with arguably the largest program, which is continuing to undergo significant program redesign. To the west is a largely yet-to-be-formed community solar program that was signed into law earlier this year as part of Oregon's Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Act.

"Achieving optimum system benefits necessitates system needs and prioritized locations be publicly identified." – Andrew Moratzka

Each of these states is actively attempting to address key challenges of shared solar. And each should be carefully monitored this spring.

Access and Rate Design

Stakeholders in Minnesota spent a year developing the first-ever, state-wide value of solar methodology, VOS, that was anticipated for use in setting the bill credit rate under Xcel Energy's statutorily-mandated community solar garden program. But in approving the launch of that program, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, MPUC, instead approved a bill credit rate based upon a variation of retail rates.

At the time it opened, Minnesota's community solar garden program was statutorily uncapped, bill credit rates were set at nearly twelve cents up to fifteen cents per kilowatt-hour, and one megawatt community solar gardens were permitted to co-locate to take advantage of economies of scale. Not surprisingly, the program yielded over four hundred megawatts of applications on its opening day. For various reasons, not fully explored here, the number grew to approximately two gigawatts worth of applications before the first year was complete. Today, the program's application pool continues to have well over seven hundred megawatts worth of applications in various stages of the interconnection process.

In a state that had little more than a dozen megawatts of solar statewide just a year or two ago, the sheer volume of applications gave rise to considerable controversy over the program's impact on non-participating ratepayers. The controversy culminated in the summer of 2015 when the MPUC retroactively inserted limits on co-location and interconnection. The program's impact on non-participating ratepayers was

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