Solar Power and Savings for All, Including Condo Owners

Perspective About Mass. Community Solar from an Energy Expert

One of the first and biggest proponents of community solar in the state predicts that “community solar has the potential to dwarf rooftop solar.” Patrick Cloney, the founding CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), spoke with Good Energy, a newsletter from renewable energy company Next Step Living. He gives his perspective on the roots of community solar in the state and its future.

Good Energy: How did you first hear about community solar?
Patrick Cloney: The first time I was introduced to community solar was during the pilot of Solarize Mass, which was in the spring of 2010. Solarize Mass was the state initiative to drive down the cost of residential solar systems by increasing competition. In Harvard, one of the pilot towns, it quickly became apparent that about 80% of the residents that wanted to go solar couldn’t. Reasons included the age of their roofs, too much shade, structural issues or the wrong orientation to the sun. So a group of folks got together that wanted solar power but fell into one of those categories and discussed a concept of a solar “garden.”

And they brought it to you at the MassCEC?
Yes. In my mind, it seemed just like a community garden where there would be one plot of land and the town residents would have a slice of it. Just like a vegetable garden. We could establish a solar power system where those homeowners who couldn’t have a system located on their own property could own a share of this solar garden.

How did you help make it happen?
We encouraged the group to find a piece of land and establish the legal framework, and I committed to trying to provide to those folks the same rebates that owners of rooftop systems received.

The results were great, because a number of people came together, identified the property, worked out the legal structure and rent payment, the taxes associated with it, and it’s under construction by the folks who envisioned it. That concept of the community garden has since blossomed elsewhere in the country and is now known as community, or shared, solar. This is the first mass-market offering of community solar in the state and a big step towards democratizing access to solar power. It’s starting in two of the three load zones, or transmission areas, and will grow from there.

What else does the future hold?
If you look at the numbers, community solar has the potential to dwarf rooftop solar, because the market is so much bigger. The data is clear that only 20% of the population can take advantage of rooftop, leaving 80% for community solar, as we found in Harvard.

I want to see every ratepayer with a piece of some solar system, whether on their roof or as part of a community solar system.

There are, however, still significant governing factors like policy issues around the net metering cap and​ how solar gets compensated fairly for the benefits it provides, while paying fairly for the electric grid​ services it uses. There was huge market expansion under the leadership of Gov. Patrick, who’s very supportive of the solar industry. We need Gov. Baker and the legislature to be equally supportive and push to advance solar policy.

Has enough progress been made? 
I always want things done faster. Community solar hasn’t been an engineering problem, it’s a complicated legal and tax problem, but we’re at the end of it. I hope community solar sees its full potential and everyone who wants an effective fixed price for electricity for 20 years gets it and doesn’t have to rely on the volatile price that a utility charges. Purchasers get the same rebates today for community solar as rooftop, which is what I wanted to make happen years ago.

So you must feel good about that?
Yes, because our region has no natural resources other than offshore wind and solar. So, I think for the economy, national security and a healthy energy mix, you need the diversification of solar.

For homeowners who can’t have on-site systems, community solar is as good as rooftop, because a community solar owner gets the same electricity, green attributes and financial incentives. They get the same benefits of solar without having it on their property.

How do you feel about your role in jumpstarting this?
It was a minor role. I was a huge, vocal supporter of community solar. I thought it was a terrific way to give equal access to so many more residents of Massachusetts.

What’s the future of rooftop solar in particular?
The rapid reduction in the cost of on-site storage – batteries – will enable all rooftop solar system owners to go completely off the grid, cost effectively. The future’s bright for all solar.

Patrick Cloney was the founding CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (2009 to 2012) and designed the Solarize Mass program. He is now an industry consultant.