Arcadia operates 13 community solar projects in New York, with about 5,500 subscriber spots. Arcadia Power
Arcadia operates 13 community solar projects in New York, with about 5,500 subscriber spots. Arcadia Power

It’s been more than five years since Connecticut started arguing about shared solar. Now — after a number of legislative actions (some successful, some not), a false start followed by delays in a tiny pilot program many thought unnecessary, and many, many public comments — an actual program is heading for regulatory approval.

And Connecticut is still arguing about shared solar.

Shared solar – also called community solar – is essentially a virtual solar system for homes that cannot have their own panels because their roofs face the wrong way, are too small, too shaded or otherwise unusable. It’s also intended for apartments, condominiums, and rental units that generally can’t benefit from the other solar incentive programs.

It’s estimated that some 80 percent of Connecticut homes may be unsuited for solar.

The way it works is that subscribers buy into a solar installation that is constructed nearby and then the local utility credits them for the solar, even though the power goes into the electric grid.

But the final program rules – delivered by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) by the July 1 mandated deadline – have resulted in yet another round of griping.

The objections come from an unusual set of allies — solar companies, advocates and utilities. There are no fully supportive comments on the PURA website, even though there is broad support for shared solar conceptually. PURA has until Jan. 1, 2020 to review and approve the program.

The devil is in the details, starting with the frequent suggestion that there simply should be fewer of them.

“This is a government program, over-embroidered, highly brocaded and not necessarily ever able to free stand,” said Karl Rabago, a former utility regulator and executive who is now executive director of the Energy and Climate Center at Pace University Law Center. Rabago has also consulted for various groups in the state and was a member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE) team that studied the need for a pilot shared clean energy project and advised going ahead with a full program, not a pilot.

“Some of those requirements are put there to protect ratepayers, to protect consumers, to assure that the customers this program was designed to benefit are actually going to obtain the benefits. The whole purpose of this program is to address climate change.”

Katie Dykes
DEEP Commissioner 

Katie Dykes, who ran the DEEP energy division at the time and now is the department’s commissioner, said she has heard the complaints and proposed changes after the draft rules were published in May. Some were accepted, others not.

“Some of those requirements are put there to protect ratepayers, to protect consumers, to assure that the customers this program was designed to benefit are actually going to obtain the benefits,” she said. “The whole purpose of this program is to address climate change. That’s the primary driver here.”

Rabago worries that the many requirements could cause the effort to backfire, however.

“I believe the administrative burdens might outweigh the consumer protection benefits,” he said.

An Arcadia Power shared solar project in Rhode Island. The company operates four community solar projects, with about 3,500 subscriber spots or individual homes that can sign up through Arcadia. Arcadia Power

‘Anti-competitive as hell’

A full shared solar program was authorized by the legislature in 2018. The final rules allow for 25 megawatts of solar per year for six years, with no rollover of any unused portion from year to year. That’s quite small compared to programs in other states, many of which have no caps.

No single project can exceed four megawatts or be smaller than 100 kilowatts.

Ten percent of subscribers must qualify as low income and another 40 percent low or moderate income – a considerably higher percentage of those two groups than other states typically require.

Other subscribers can be small businesses and commercial customers, state and municipal entities, renters and condominiums. In the draft rules, homeowners were prohibited. After much protest, the state agreed to make eligible  homeowners with written proof that solar panels cannot be accommodated on their roof, but that is still angering many.

“If people want to subscribe, let them subscribe,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney with Connecticut Fund for the Environment, who says there is little justification for such a low cap and the lack of rollover. “There may be any number of reasons why someone can’t or simply does not want to individually install solar panels on their roof.”

Conceptually it’s a step in right direction, he said. “I just don’t see any rationale why you’d want to discourage anybody from subscribing.”

There are very strict and detailed financial qualifications and experience requirements for solar developers that many worry will favor large, experienced companies from outside the state that have the means to outbid smaller companies. Companies inside the state that are new to shared solar could be left behind, making it difficult to create a local shared solar industry.

“Go to anybody and say ‘this is what it costs to participate in this government opportunity’ and I’m not sure they’re going to feel really excited about it.”

Karl Rabago
Executive Director, Energy and Climate Center at Pace University Law Center.

Rabago calls such requirements “anti-competitive as hell.”

“Go to anybody and say ‘this is what it costs to participate in this government opportunity’ and I’m not sure they’re going to feel really excited about it,” he said.

Citing the complicated rules, United Illuminating went so far as to offer an alternative to shared solar – procuring locally-sited solar that takes advantage of the current low prices and then re-directs subsidies to help low- and moderate-income customers.

“Procurements. No subsidy. No cap,” said Patrick McDonnell, UI’s vice president of Connecticut regulatory affairs, who believes getting a lot of people to sign up will help push the price low enough to compete with, or even fall below the current standard service price for electricity. “One hundred percent Connecticut-based solar. Save the subsidies for low income.”

He plans to make his case to legislators next year.

Working out the kinks

The final plan follows the inception, though not completion, of the pilot program. The pilot included three projects, none of which are operational yet. Each is a year or more behind schedule.

The process has left Connecticut to play catch-up with other states that are years ahead, including nearly all its neighbors, but especially Massachusetts and New York.

Clean Energy Collective (CEC), based in Colorado, has been working at shared solar longer than just about any company in the U.S. It operates in 16 states and has more than 80 projects running, another 20 under construction and around 100 in development.

The company is going gangbusters in Massachusetts, with 38 projects totaling more than 56 megawatts running and another 45 megawatts in development. In New York, three projects are about to come online and another 23 megawatts are in development.

Both states have less restrictive rules and it shows. Massachusetts, which has been doing shared solar longer, has 317 megawatts of shared solar operational and another 554 megawatts in the pipeline.

CEC is also the developer for one of the Connecticut pilot projects — 1.62 megawatts in Bloomfield, 60 percent of which will be used by the local board of education. The rest is split evenly between low-income housing projects and general residential homes. It’s built and awaiting utility testing, which could come within the month, making it the first of the pilots to fire up.

A shared solar project in Bloomfield CEC

Tom Sweeney, CEC’s president of renewable assets, is diplomatic in his assessment of Connecticut’s final program rules.

“We’re pleased that they’ve defined rules and are enabling a program,” he said. “I’d never say it’s not a good thing they got it done.”

But he has a list of concerns, starting with his disappointment that the program is so small, which makes it difficult to achieve economies of scale.

“We can’t build 10 at the same time to help reduce the cost of equipment,” he said, pointing to Massachusetts where CEC has more than 60 megawatts underway now, with 150 additional megawatts likely in the next 18 months. “It helps reduce costs.”

Connecticut’s small size also means if his company does not win a bid, there will be little opportunity to re-apply, leaving them with stranded capital spent on proposals. In a program with no cap, like New York’s, there’s a good chance the project could eventually be selected even if CEC loses a bid.

Sweeney is also concerned that the billing system proposed in Connecticut – which adds an extra step that most states do not require, will mean extra costs, more expensive projects, and pose more financing difficulties.

“It’s a combination of issues,” he said.

Arcadia Power also voiced its concerns to DEEP. The company, which operates in about a half-dozen states including all Connecticut’s neighbors, provides subscriber management – which comes in after developers, builders and owners are on-board.

“Our strong belief is that community solar should serve as many customers as possible. The best programs have the broadest particulars,” said Richard Caperton, senior director of regulatory affairs and market development. And he said he likes rules that will create as much certainty as possible.

That’s the same message Isabelle Hazlewood, manager of statutory and infrastructure programs at the Connecticut Green Bank, heard at a recent conference on shared solar. “Developers want market consistency and uniformity,” she said.

“Overall, we’re happy DEEP is complying with the timeline and is committed to creating a program,” she said, calling it workable. “There are some challenging aspects.”

Shared solar in Bloomfield

Since 2011, the Green Bank has handled the state’s residential solar program with a particular eye toward including low- and moderate-income households, making deep inroads in that population using standard marketing approaches.

Among what Hazlewood called the “kinks” are that the large program requirement for low- and moderate-income will make project financing more difficult. She is also concerned that requirements for project bidders will be prohibitive for Connecticut companies that have never done this before and could result in big national companies winning large projects with no opportunity for smaller companies and projects.   

“What’s really most important for DEEP is to be committed to being flexible going forward and make adjustments if needed,” she said.

For her part, DEEP Commissioner Dykes said small Connecticut solar companies have done well against large companies in the various solar programs over the last eight years. And she reiterated her commitment to a robust low- and moderate-income component.

“That’s something I’m really excited about in this program design – pushing developers to make those customers a priority,” she said.

As for the program requirements, she said, “We need to solve climate change and this is an important program, one of the many important programs that we have to do that. If we have projects that look good on paper that can’t actually get built, then we’re not meeting that goal.”

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Jan Ellen SpiegelEnergy & Environment Reporter

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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10 Comments

  1. It is so disappointing to read this. The point of solar is cleaner air which we ALL breath regardless of income. It really does not matter who generates it. The more solar we use instead of fossil fuels, the cleaner the air, the less climate change. Let’s concentrate on accelerating the program like our neighbors in New York and Massachusetts. We have no more time left to fiddle around.

    1. Perhaps you should consider the carbon footprint associated with the production of PV panels, most of which occurs in China where the electricity used to make them comes from burning coal.

      In addition, if you truly want to this method of electric generation to be “green”, you MUST consider what to do with the panels at the end of their approximate 30 life span. It is the total life-cycle cost and effects that matter.

      For an interesting explanation of this, see this web page:

      1. The carbon footprint ratio of solar versus coal which includes the manufacturing process of the panels using coal generated power is generally calculated at 26:1. Wind is 44:1 and nuclear is 20:1 btw. Solar is not without a carbon footprint but it is much cleaner than coal and safer than nuclear.

    2. One interesting read on the environmental impact of solar panels is a NatGeo report “How Green Are Those Solar Panels, Really?” It was reports/studies like that one and several other more recent ones that led me to mention in my post above “Solar isn’t, itself, without adverse environmental issues.”

  2. Some big corporation influenced this program to limit competition. Its got lobbyist paw prints all over it. CT has a long history of favoring huge companies, and then becoming beholden to them. Its one of the main reasons that our state is in economic trouble.

  3. After nearly a decade of never ending issues, regardless of who the commissioner happens to be at the time, many in the renewable energy industry seem to think that the DEEP has no grasp of economic development or job creation. Many of the their processes limit, over-complicate, or hinder growth. Our legislators need to pay attention to this if they want to grow jobs in OUR state, not send the ratepayer money to out- of -state corporations.

  4. If you take the time to understand current and future costs for electricity in our state, as compared to others. You will clearly recognize, it is the utility companies that are “driving the bus”, not regulators or consumers. The cost for power in this state is a significant inhibitor to our success, and economic recovery. Driving down the cost of power in this state, is paramount to our future.

  5. Ms. Spiegel is spot-on when she writes ‘the devil is in the details.’

    I would love to have free-standing solar panels on our property, but we’d need to clear centuries-old trees–an absolutely unsuitable requirement. Most of my extended neighborhood is in the same boat. To us, this program is certainly well worth pursuing. However, I have complete confidence in CT government screwing this all up.

    Solar isn’t, itself, without adverse environmental issues. To start with, it should be required that these installations be limited to sites already compromised; the Hartford landfill is an example of this. Also, clear-cutting beneficial forest must be avoided. Regulatory issues must be very carefully thought out.
    From what I’ve seen in my northern New England travels, they do a pretty decent job of locating these solar farms.

    Please, Ms. Spiegel, keep us all updated on this. Thank you.

  6. While I was one of two Study Advisors to the Connecticut Academy of Science & Engineering, I in no way represent them in these comments.

    This piece by Jan Ellen Spiegel is an excellent article that well-captures the details of how what could have been an incredibly excellent program has been a huge disappointment.I have been in renewable energy since 1975 and have seen a great many blunders but none as great as this. It has become mismanaged by people at DEEP into a narrow and almost unworkable debacle–only time will tell but being familiar with the successes in other states it sticks out like a sore thumb.

    If this is any indication how the Lamont administration exercises any oversight, I am sadly disappointed. I hope they will re-examine DEEP’s role in this and set this program on a far more progressive path so any follow-up article(s) may reflect a more positive outcome.

  7. Its high time our government begins working on massive utility reform. Our energy situation is holding back the entire state. One monopoly benefits and the rest of us pay. Let’s finally get serious about this.

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