What may be the first opt-out community choice solar program in the U.S. has gone live in the Villages of Brockport and Lima, New York, under the name Finger Lakes Community Choice Aggregation.
The pilot was developed by Joule Community Power and is similar to a traditional community solar pilot, but with a twist. As designed, the municipality signs up the entire population, leveraging the collective buying power at a scale large enough to secure better terms through a single competitive bidding process with solar providers.
For Brockport and Lima, six community solar farms will supply more than 3,800 households and small businesses with roughly 28 million kWh of electricity annually for the next 25 years, with roughly 500 of those households being low- and middle-income residents.
The program is also expected to reduce residents’ electricity bills by up to 10%. Some residents will see these savings as early as Sept. 30, depending on which community solar site will supply their power. Unlike a traditional opt-in program, homeowners are automatically enrolled in the program, with any credits or charges accounted for in their monthly National Grid electricity bill.
The solar farms are expected to begin operation in October 2021—all residents will be covered by Spring 2022.
What’s more, under this pilot program homeowners who want to take part do not have to undergo a soft credit check, sign a contract with a community distributed generation, or pay separately for the solar credits.
Many more opt-out programs are expected to launch in the near future.
Change on the horizon
As the program launches, however, National Grid and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) have filed a petition with state regulators that requests that National Grid and, eventually, all investor-owned utilities be granted authority to purchase and distribute a significant portion, if not all, of the state’s expected community solar resources.
In short, National Grid’s proposal looks to shift the program’s ownership model so that utilities own the community solar installations, rather than the communities served by the installation owning them. Not only does this partially devalue the community aspect of the program, but it could also restrict the ability for municipal leaders to dedicate savings from solar projects to their own residents and communities.
The proposal would place municipal leaders in direct competition with utilities, requiring them to apply for and justify to utilities their need to access community solar benefits for their own low-to-moderate income residents, even when projects are located on their municipal land.
Joule Community Power, the community choice program developer, also argues that the proposal could slow the adoption of community solar in the state, with residents being less likely to engage with and support projects owned and implemented by utilities, rather than by their community leaders and peers.
The idea of decreased support for community solar projects is a particularly troubling one, considering how much success New York has seen with community projects.
In 2020, New York added 549 MW of community solar capacity according to NYSERDA, leading the nation. More than 90% of the state’s 2.7 GW pipeline of projects under development that have been awarded NY-Sun incentives, and are expected to come online in the next two years, are community solar, comprising more than 800 projects.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the next five years will see the U.S. community solar market add more than 4 GW of total capacity.