NYS Public Service Commission Action Will Help Tenants, Low-Income Customers and Others Lacking Rooftop Access Go Solar

Boulder Cowdery Meadows Array.jpeg

For New Yorkers like me, who’ve wanted to put solar panels on their roofs but found it wasn’t feasible, there’s some excellent news, thanks to an effort NRDC and others helped initiate at the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC). Soon, we’ll be able to join the growing number of Americans who can participate in offsite solar projects, a/k/a community solar, solar gardens or shared solar. (The PSC’s announcement last week included five regulatory reforms that are part of Governor Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” plan to improve New York’s energy system.)

Offsite solar (and other small-scale renewables) projects will bring to New Yorkers all the great benefits that clean energy has to offer—pollution-free power; new, good-paying jobs; significant cost-savings on electricity. These projects will be supported by residential and business customers alike and built sometimes on other people’s roofs, on brownfields, farmers’ fields, in industrial areas and, importantly, can serve as an asset to the electric grid, especially in the seriously overtaxed New York City area.

Community solar projects like this one in Boulder County, Colorado can help tenants, low-income people, and others without rooftop rights go solar. Photo: REC Solar

The news gets even better, too. The PSC has put the regulatory process to make all this happen on a serious fast-track. New Yorkers could start fundamentally shifting the way we produce power by as early as this spring. And just to add a cherry on this solar sundae, the state is doubling its net metering cap—that is, the amount of solar energy it allows producers to sell to the grid—from 3 percent to 6 percent of 2005 peak electric demand, or almost 2,000 megawatts, meaning there’s a lot more room for solar to grow in the Empire State. 

The idea of shared solar just makes sense. Though Americans love solar, “75-80 percent of residential customers nationwide can’t access rooftop solar,” explains Sara Baldwin Auck, director of the regulatory program at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, an advocacy group.

The reasons for this are simple:

  • trees or structures often block solar access to a roof, or the roof itself faces in the wrong direction;
  • people who want to put solar on their roofs or grounds are renters rather than owners, or owners in multi-unit buildings; and/or,
  • an owner’s credit isn’t ideal.

Now, a growing number of states and utilities are warming to the idea of shared renewables. For utilities, “this fits their business model better than anything else in the solar industry,” explains Jon Miller, the utility program manager at California-based REC Solar, which develops solar gardens. “You manage a lot of subscriptions over a 20-year time frame and utilities are very comfortable with that model.” Not only that, but because shared projects tend to be distributed across a utility’s service territory, says Baldwin Auck, “if you put shared solar in the right place, it can reduce stress and strain on the grid,” something that benefits both utilities and consumers. Putting solar arrays close to the load centers where power demand is greatest can also reduce the transmission losses that eat up a full 6 percent of the electricity generated in the United States.

One of the many benefits of shared solar and other shared renewables is that they often allow low- and moderate-income customers new access to clean energy. While some shared solar projects require customers to purchase panels upfront, many work on a subscription model that lets you pay as you go.

Residential and commercial customers who participate get credits on their electric bills for the amount of solar their panels (or other renewables) generate. And if you sign up with the right developer, you can even get a photo of your array to post on the fridge.

Already, in many places across the country, shared solar has proven incredibly popular. On Friday, Minnesota customers served by the utility Xcel Energy became eligible and the phone at Minnesota Community Solar, a local developer, has been ringing a lot. “We’re getting 5-10 calls a day,” says designer Steve Coleman. “It’s been increasing with every blog post and every article.” And in states and utility districts across the country, “we’re seeing a lot of activity at both the legislative and regulatory level,” says IREC’s Baldwin Auck. “We’re expecting to see a lot more shared solar coming down the pike in 2015.”

Here in New York, that’s especially true, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s leadership (and NRDC’s, too) and the PSC’s actions last week. My family and I, and thousands like us who’ve wanted solar but can’t put it where we live or work, won’t have to wait much longer for the clean power of the sun.