Complaints persist even as shared solar (finally) nears finish line

Clean Energy Collective

A shared solar project under construction in Holliston, MA.

Shared solar, a concept that can provide solar power to many of those who otherwise can’t get it, has been on the radar in Connecticut since 2012. After years of delays it may finally be close to its first – albeit tiny – test here.

But along with some cheers from its supporters, there’s an awful lot of complaining.

“In a time where there’s incredible interest in solar all over, we’re sitting here frustrated, feeling like we’re missing that wave,” said Claire Coleman, climate and energy attorney for Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

That wave is now apparent in more than a dozen states with shared solar – also known as community solar – a system in which subscribers buy into a large system located somewhere other than on their own roofs. But in Connecticut, once considered a leading solar power adopter, it took two legislative sessions, in 2014 and 2015, just to squeeze out a minimal pilot program totaling six megawatts.

The pilot was a compromise among supporters who believed there were enough national shared solar models for Connecticut to use as the basis for a full program instead of a pilot, those who were fighting it altogether, largely because of the departure it represented from the long-standing business model for supplying electricity, and those who just wanted a more cautious approach.

A regulatory hang-up sent the pilot back to the legislature for a fix in 2016 before finally a request for proposals (RFP) was issued last year, well past the initial deadline.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, however, rejected all 19 proposals from eight developers, rewrote some of the project criteria and reissued an RFP in February to be completed on an expedited time frame.

The new rules and tight schedule angered so many that only nine projects from four developers came in.

“It was demoralizing; it took a lot of man hours,” said Paul Jeun, co-founder of IPP Solar, which had seven proposals in the first RFP but dropped out in the second. “It didn’t create a lot of confidence the second time around that something similar wasn’t going happen.

“I just didn’t want to go through it again.”

Connecticut’s program is officially called the Shared Clean Energy Facilities pilot program and is open to other clean energy sources, such as wind and fuel cells. But solar stands to benefit the most.

While homeowner interest in solar is high in Connecticut, estimates are that as many as 80 percent of residences in the state are unsuited for solar. They’re too shaded, roofs are small or face the wrong way, or they’re rentals or apartments.

Fuel Cell Energy had proposed two projects in the first RFP – one in Hartford, the other in New Haven – but did not reapply in the second attempt. A spokesman declined to say why. But many suspect one reason was the same cited by some of the solar dropouts – money.

Among the new criteria was a cap on the cost of the power – 17 cents per kilowatt hour – a few cents lower than the average price of submissions in the first RFP.

It was enough.

“At 17 cents there was not much margin for error, especially on projects too small to benefit from any kind of economy of scale,” said Jeun, who has installed many solar projects in the state through other incentive programs. He and others complained that DEEP didn’t seem to recognize that shared solar, with many customers, requires more administration and therefore can cost more than rooftop solar that just supplies power to a single home, or a grid-scale solar installation that has a single utility as the buyer.

“Conceptually it’s great,” he said. “It unlocks solar for a big chunk of the community who wants solar and can’t get it.”

Other changes for the second RFP made sure a certain percentage of the power went to residential customers, especially low- and moderate-income ones. It also banned the use of prime farmland or forest for installations, which some argued was too restrictive, pointing to the model in Massachusetts, where what they call community solar has taken off. Some 40 megawatts of community solar is operating there, with another 200 megawatts in the pipeline.

Clean Energy Collective

A shared solar project in Rehoboth, MA

Massachusetts sets different incentive levels based on the value of the land used. It allows for an additional 5 cents per kilowatt-hour to account for the increased work to administer community solar – answering phones, talking with customers, billing and more.

They are the sorts of things that made Coleman and others worry when they saw Connecticut’s revised program structure. “We were sort of holding our breath recognizing the combination of siting and cost restrictions can be a tough combo,” said Coleman, whose organization has all along advocated a full program, not a pilot. “Our biggest concern was that it would be deterring interest in solar development in Connecticut rather than spurring interest in investment.”

The most confusing change to the RFP was one that would make the developers responsible for soliciting subscribers for projects and a shift in how money changes hands.

The power from a shared solar facility actually goes into the electric grid. Subscribers to the project get their power virtually. In Connecticut that means the utility will be responsible for the billing, subtracting what a customer has agreed to buy from what he or she uses and then billing them.

Utilities have generally balked at the idea of shared solar, as well as a number of other forms of renewable power. The traditional argument is that the company has to maintain the wires and poles the projects still need, even though shared solar customers are no longer paying the utilities as much as they used to.

Comments filed by both Eversource and Avangrid to the original program notice were clear in their disinterest in administering a shared solar program. But in an email, Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Eversource, called the pilot program “another excellent opportunity for developing renewable energy.” And he also wrote: “We currently have the framework in place to handle the interface with customers, so having us oversee the interactions is the most efficient way and directly supports the strategy laid out by the state.”

Developers who chose to reapply in the second RFP were diplomatic in their comments, concerned about hurting their chances for grabbing one of the pilot project slots. Some chose not to comment at all.

Clean Energy Collective, a Colorado-based company whose sole focus is shared solar, stuck it out. It is the premier shared-solar developer in the country with projects in 12 states. For the second RFP, the company dumped its original proposal, replacing it with two – one on a landfill in Bloomfield and another on an industrial site in Groton

But Tom Hunt, Clean Energy Collective’s senior vice president of corporate development, said Connecticut wasn’t a critical piece of its business – yet.

“It’s still an opportunity,” he said. “Connecticut is a state where shared solar makes a lot of sense. If we can figure out a way to make this work, grow shared solar from there – I think it’s worth it.”

Clean Energy Collective

A shared solar facility in Westport, MA

Connecticut-based Greenskies, with a number of solar projects under its belt in the state and nationally, was dipping its toe into shared solar for the first time with the original RFP. But that experience pushed them “pretty close” to skipping the second one, said Meagan Occhiogrosso, director of business development for shared and community solar. The issue was whether they could absorb the financial burden of marketing to get subscribers, something they don’t normally do.

“There was enough of a feeling in the company that shared, community solar is really the future of the industry – to bring solar to people who otherwise can’t get it,” she said.

Tracy Babbidge, chief of DEEP’s Bureau of Energy and Technology Policy, has heard the shared solar criticism for several years. She chuckles that the original complaints were that the pilot was too slow, and now some complain the application period is too fast.

“Our goal in doing this,” she said of the revised RFP, “Was to insure that, even though it’s a pilot, we’re looking at deployment of a program that could be scaled up.”

In setting the price cap, she said DEEP had the benefit of being able to compare prices among the many clean energy procurements they’d done. But that’s exactly the problem, some say – shared solar is not like other programs.

“This has not been DEEP’s finest hour,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a member of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee who had pushed hard for a full shared solar program. “I don’t want to blame it on them, but I don’t want to give them too much slack either.”

He said the program needs to address long-term targets, such as lessening pressure on the electric grid, meeting renewable energy goals as part of combating climate change and creating clean energy jobs – really good ones, he said. “I want to cry because we saw this opportunity years ago.”

Mike Trahan, executive director of the industry group Solar Connecticut, has been in the shared solar conversation from the beginning, which he admitted feels like a long time ago. And even though he too preferred a full program over a pilot, “I remain pretty bullish on this,” he said. “This is an experiment and that means that there’s going to be stops and starts, and that makes developers uncomfortable no doubt.”

But he warned that the pilot would only have value if the projects in it can be replicated. “But If developers look and say I can’t make the economics work…” he said, trailing off.

He said he believes at the end of the day there will be a program that works for all parties. But then added dryly: “Whenever that day is.”

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