Utilities can score points with customers by supporting the development of community solar arrays.
Last August, when Xcel Energy in Colorado opened its Solar*Rewards Community Solar Garden offer to project developers, it sold out in 30 minutes.
Around the country, other utilities’ solar garden test programs are not only fully subscribed but have waiting lists. Although solar gardens can take different forms, the idea of a community-shared solar array with grid-connected subscribers is popular with consumers and reflects well on the utility offering them.
Where the popularity is coming from
Over the past decade, a number of external pressures have led electric utilities to reconsider their business model for renewable generation – one being an increasing number of state renewable portfolio standards; and another being intense NGO pressure for cleaner generation. Finally, there’s been a growing wellspring of interest and support for renewable energy among utility customers.
Our own Energy Pulse research, along with other polls conducted by research organizations like Gallup, show an increasing desire for the development of solar-generated energy, in particular.
In our poll, respondents were asked to put themselves in the position of the president of the United States and select only one energy source to support financially for development and exploration. Thirty-seven percent selected solar – more than twice that of second-place wind (15 percent).
What utilities stand to gain
Our 2013 Utility Pulse survey also shows that 60 percent of respondents think it important for their electric utility to use renewable resources. The same survey shows higher levels of customer satisfaction among those who think their utility is environmentally responsible.
Thankfully, technological advancements and new leasing/ownership models are making solar options more viable. Enter solar gardens. Cost and maintenance issues have prohibited many individual consumers from pursuing solar. But with a solar garden, organizations or groups of individuals pool their resources and purchase panels to erect in an empty field or rooftop.
How solar gardens work
Participants purchase an interest (or share) and obtain a right to a corresponding portion of the energy produced from the solar panels. The utilities then use some form of net metering or a billing adjustment to credit individuals for the energy the garden produces.
Early indications for solar gardens are positive. They offer customers and utilities a way to balance cost and ownership that benefits both parties. And utilities get the added bonus of improving their image with customers by pursuing more environmentally friendly generation options.