Maine community solar farms

Friday, March 18, 2016

As the Maine legislature considers a bill to change the state's solar energy laws, opportunities for customers to participate in community solar farms are drawing interest.  As a result of this interest, some of the legal structures within which Maine community solar projects operate may change.

Community solar farms offer one model for connecting electricity consumers with solar power.  While there are various definitions of what qualifies a project as "community solar", most concepts feature a solar-electric system that provides power or financial benefit to, or is owned by, multiple community members.  This shared ownership, or shared benefit, is key to the community renewable energy model.

The Solar Energy Industries Association notes 25 states with at least one community solar project on-line, with 91 projects and 102 cumulative megawatts installed as of early 2016.  According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, interest in the community solar segment flows from "the recognition that the on-site solar market comprises only one part of the total market for solar energy."  Renters, those with shaded or otherwise unsuitable roofs, or anyone choosing not to install a residential system at home might prefer to invest in an off-site, shared ownership solar project.

State laws or regulations typically shape how customers can participate in community solar projects.  For example, Maine's current community solar model relies on the state's shared ownership net energy billing regulations. The Maine Public Utilities Commission rules governing "net energy billing" require investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities to offer net energy billing to any customer of a transmission and distribution utility that owns or has the legal rights to energy generated using an eligible facility.

The current Maine rules allow up to 10 customer accounts to be netted against a commonly-owned eligible generating facility located in the same utility service territory.  These accounts must belong to "shared ownership customers" -- customers that have an ownership interest (or legally enforceable rights and obligations) in the generating facility.  Participating customers must have joint responsibility for the costs of the shared ownership facility, as well as the rights to the benefits of the project's output in proportion to the cost responsibilities.  The local public utility will allocate the project's generation output among the participants, along with any banked credits, based on each customer's ownership interest in the project. 

Under these shared ownership net metering regulations, a solar project in South Paris developed in 2014 became Maine's first shared ownership community solar farm, and a project in Edgecomb became Maine's second operating community solar farm in 2015.  Other community solar projects are under development.

But when community solar projects rely on state laws, they may be affected by changes in law.  The Maine legislature is now considering a bill that would change Maine's solar energy law.  LD 1649 would largely replace a billing treatment called net metering with a series of long-term contracts and utility procurement orders.  It would establish a procurement target for large-scale community solar distributed generation resources of 45 megawatts by 2022.  Under this model, project sponsors would propose projects (up to 5 megawatts each) and could bid for long-term contracts to sell the project output to the local utility.  Project sponsors would recruit "subscribers" to take proportional interests in the resource, with each subscription sized to represent at least one kilowatt of the resource's generating capacity. Each subscriber would receive a bill credit based on his or her percentage interest in the project's production.

This model could enable more than 10 customer accounts to participate in a shared ownership solar project, which would address the limit on how many customers may participate in a community solar project under current regulations.  This could enable an expansion of shared-ownership solar, albeit under a model that relies on power sales to the local utility, instead of self-consumption or net metering.  But LD 1649 could also have an impact on those community solar projects already operating or under development, because it would effectively end net metering and offer only limited grandfathering of existing projects.

One alternative that could support community solar without impacting existing projects would be to expand the net metering paradigm, for example by allowing municipalities or groups of consumers to participate in larger projects that could offset more customer accounts.  For example, Massachusetts encourages municipal participation in solar projects by allowing governmental entities to net meter larger projects than individual customers.  Maine could adopt a similar model, expanding opportunities for municipally owned or shared ownership solar projects.

The Maine legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology held a public hearing on LD 1649 on March 16.  The committee is expected to give the bill further consideration this month.

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