Thursday, March 18, 2010

For Renters, Solar Comes in Shares

 What happens if a renter wants solar power?

Most of the time, it’s tough luck, unless the home’s owner agrees to add panels. But a new solution is springing up in pockets of the country: community solar arrays.

Sometimes called solar gardens or farms, the idea is that utilities build the arrays, and customers — renters, people with shady roofs and even condo owners — can buy a share.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District runs such a program, called “Solar Shares.” It serves up to 1,000 customers and is currently sold out. The concept has also appeared in St. George, Utah and Falmouth, Mass., (the Falmouth array was privately financed up-front, as was a similar project in Brewster, Mass.).

The utility in Tucson, Ariz., is also seeking regulatory approval to build a community array near the airport, on land that would be difficult to develop otherwise.

“This program was developed in response to customers who have told us they would like to invest in solar energy for their own home but for one reason or another are not candidates for a rooftop solar array,” said Joe Salkowski, a spokesman for Tucson Electric Power.

As with all solar energy, buying into community solar isn’t cheap. The Sacramento program adds about 9 percent on average to customers’ bills. Under the Tucson proposal, customers would be able to buy 150 kilowatt-hour shares for $3 extra (though they can subtract the fossil fuel surcharge that would otherwise appear on their bill).

“It’s not a discount program,” Mr. Salkowski said. He added that the utility would pay to fix the panels if needed.

There are regulatory hurdles to this type of project. In Colorado, for example, lawmakers are mulling community solar gardens — but according to the The Daily Camera, a Boulder newspaper, some solar companies fear that the arrays might compete for public subsidies with rooftop solar panels, under Colorado’s renewable energy laws.

“We want to make sure the new market doesn’t replace the existing ones for customers,” Eriks Brolis, co-owner of Namaste Solar in Boulder, told the newspaper.


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