Community-Owned Solar Gardens

Image: young plants. Title: Community-Owned Solar Gardens

Community-owned solar gardens make renewable energy accessible to all.

Glenn Sliva works as a consultant for some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, like Chevron, Exxon, and BP. As a reservoir engineer, he calculates the amount of oil and gas in the ground at a given site, so he’s intimately aware that fossil fuels are, as he calls them, “depleting assets.”

“I’m in the energy business, so I know what’s coming. Energy prices are going to skyrocket,” Sliva told Green America. That’s why he’s chosen to get in early on an innovative new program established last year near his home in western Colorado.

Sliva is one of 19 co-owners of the nation’s first community-owned “solar garden,” a 338-panel solar array installed in El Jebel, CO, in August of 2010 as the first project of the Clean Energy Collective (CEC), a for-profit company that helps facilitate these projects. Conceived as a way to reduce costs and make solar energy more accessible, the collective ownership structure allows participants to access some of the local- and statefunded clean-energy incentives single homeowners enjoy, and bulk-purchasing drives the cost down even more.

As ratepayers to Holy Cross Energy (the local electric utility), the solar coowners see credits on their utility bill for all of the solar power their individual panels have produced. The panels also assist Holy Cross in meeting its renewableenergy goals. Required by Colorado law to produce ten percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020 (and pursuing an even more ambitious internal goal of 20 percent by 2015), Holy Cross moves closer to these goals each time citizens working with the Clean Energy Collective establish a new solar garden.

“Collective purchasing also means optimal siting and angling of the solar array, rather than working around individual rooftop conditions, so each panel achieves maximum efficiency,” says Paul Spencer, CEC president.

Spencer explains that when electricity customers cooperate on a large common project, each step of the process—from purchase of the panels to installation to maintenance—becomes more efficient and much cheaper, thanks to economies of scale. That’s how the CEC can step in as the organizer, negotiating with local electric utilities, coordinating site selection and construction, and providing maintenance—all while still offering co-owners a pricing structure that’s more competitive than the average home-based system.

For example, says Spencer, a participant with very little up-front investment capital available can purchase into the collective with a single panel (at around a $500 cost), which would be an unthinkable option at the single-rooftop scale due to installations costs. At the higher end of the investment continuum, a participant who purchases enough panels to cover a home’s full energy needs also benefits from the collective structure, spending a good deal less money up-front than someone installing an individual system—and then seeing that smaller investment break even in about 10 to 13 years, versus up to 20 or 30 on many home-based systems.

So far, most participants have bought into the Collective somewhere between those extremes; many have purchased half of their power-usage as solar energy. Still, some, like Glenn Sliva, have bought in all the way. Sliva started by bringing his at-home energy use down as much as possible, and then invested about $10,000 of his savings in 15 panels to power his 3,000-square-foot home. Compared to what he could have spent on an at-home system, he considers it a bargain, especially when he thinks forward to how he’ll avoid future fossil-fuel costs.

The idea is catching on. In June, the Clean Energy Collective activated its second solar garden, a much larger array with 3,575 panels co-owned by about 250 people. Two more Colorado projects are under discussion at present, and Spencer says his group is working with potential partners in 26 states and five other countries to share the collective solar purchasing model elsewhere.

“Colorado is our proving ground,” says Spencer. “We wanted to create a vehicle to make clean energy accessible and affordable to the masses. I think we’re showing we can do it.”

Buying into a Solar Garden

While the solar garden model is fairly new, it’s starting to catch on, including in urban areas like Edmonds, WA. This fall, the Frances Anderson Center in downtown Edmonds will be the site of a 75 kw solar installation, with 750 solar panels adorning the roof of this city-owned community center. Carlo Voli, a native of Italy who has lived in Edmonds for ten years, is the proud owner of one of those panels. And the other 749? They belong to different community members who have come together as the Edmonds Community Solar Cooperative.

Voli, who has since become the president of the cooperative’s board of directors, bought the very first share in the cooperative. Each share, called a Sun Slice™, represents one panel that will be installed on the Frances Anderson Center; each SunSlice costs $1,000. Members of the cooperative will receive revenue generated from the project in proportion to the number of SunSlices they own.

“Joining a community solar cooperative is a more affordable way to participate in clean energy projects that reduce greenhouse gases and generate clean energy,” says Chris Herman of Sustainable Edmonds, a local group that started organizing the project in 2008. “You can purchase a solar panel or two, and then receive a share of the energy and incentives generated indirectly through a rebate to cooperative members.”

The project, which sold 100 percent of its initial offering of SunSlices this summer, lets people who may be renters, or have unsuitable roofs for solar, support and invest in clean energy in their community.

“In the Seattle area, 50 percent of residents are renters,” says Stanley Florek, CEO of Tangerine Power, a local company working with the Edmonds Community Solar Cooperative and others looking to do similar projects. “And 20-25 percent of homeowners have trees blocking the south-facing part of their roof, so we’re left with only a quarter of the population who could do solar in the first place. That’s where SunSlices come in—anyone in the community can purchase a piece of a solar installation, and they’ll be able to walk by and see their panel generating energy for the community.”

Florek notes that buying a SunSlice doesn’t give someone the right to run off with the solar panel on a whim—members of the cooperative agree to keep their panels on the installation spot for ten years. During that time, each cooperative member gets a yearly check of his/her portion of the revenues of the project—Florek estimates that members of the Edmonds cooperative will receive $100 a year per panel, meaning that they will earn back their investments in ten years. At the end of that period, the members of the cooperative will vote on whether to keep the solar array or sell it.

For Voli, the cooperative embodies the type of activity he wants to see in his city. “This is a project that brings together people in the community, helps us work together and share revenues as a cooperative, and generates clean energy!” he says. “And what’s just as exciting is that this is the first fully citizen-owned power generation project in the state, and one of the first in the entire country, creating a reference point for a lot more of these to happen in the future. I believe that what we’re doing here will be a model for solar energy generation and community action for people all over the country.”

From Green American Magazine Issue