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Solar Co-ops Support Clean Energy Advances In D.C.

Published on December 3rd, 2018 |

by John Farrell

December 3rd, 2018 by John Farrell 

Originally published at ilsr.org.

How does a growing, national nonprofit organization help homeowners complete the circle between clean energy ownership and policy advocacy? ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative director John Farrell talks with Anya Schoolman of Solar United Neighbors in this October 2018 recording about two major clean energy policies before the Washington, D.C., city council. Support for the policies comes from the advocacy efforts of many residents enabled by Solar United Neighbors to become solar owners by banding together, a model that has spread to over 10 states.

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John and Anya last talked in 2015, when local residents were opposing a bid by the nation’s largest utility to takeover the incumbent investor-owned utility in D.C., Pepco. The D.C. Public Service Commission had rejected the merger, but the city and utility were back with a settlement agreement that had plenty for utility shareholders, and little for customers. The first ever Local Energy Rules podcast also features a conversation between Anya and John about the precursor to Solar United Neighbors.

The first part of the conversation covered two big policy proposals in front of the D.C. city council, starting with a 100% renewable energy commitment by 2032. Anya emphasized that the plan seems more ambitious than at first blush:

“In some ways it’s not very aggressive at all because DC is kind of a very small island within the larger PJM. We could actually decide to go 100% tomorrow, because there’s enough renewables in the grid, and enough RECs around. You could just do it. It wouldn’t even be that expensive…The devil’s in the details.”  

It’s a juicy debate: Should the 100% commitment result in new renewable energy deployment? Should it be local energy? Can you buy renewable energy credits from Texas? Does the District still need investments in energy efficiency if electricity is 100% renewable? (John and Anya had a few thoughts on the benefits of energy efficiency and local energy development that persist even with 100% renewable electricity). Interestingly, the debate has been more into details than the goal itself, about which there’s significant agreement.

Few advocates want to take a shortcut to 100% renewable energy. Instead, the debate has centered on how the 100% bill will align with the District’s existing commitments to reduce energy use and to increase low-income access to solar energy. The Solar for All program, for example — the centerpiece of the District’s focus on energy equity — requires D.C. to build local rooftop or parking local solar sufficient to cut the energy bills of every single low-income customer in DC by 50% by 2032.

John noted that several utilities in other regions have proposals to go beyond 50% renewable electricity already, but that the models include centralized, utility ownership that limits the local economic benefits (and doesn’t necessarily save money). Anya emphasized that thousands of local jobs hinge on the debate, but she’s confident that policy makers will retain the focus on local:

“D.C. is going to do what’s best for the people who live in D.C. We have the luxury of being a city-state, so it gives us a little more democratic control over what happens…D.C. has eight wards and all eight wards want local, rooftop solar.”

“It’s a radical bill and it’s meant to be,” says Anya, because of the “slow as molasses” pace of the grid modernization process. Catalyzing the bill is an Exelon-proposed project near the Mt. Vernon Square metro station. The “utility is proposing to build a big substation on top of a neighborhood community garden.” The D.C. Dept. of the Environment has paid for non-wires analysis showing it’s cheaper and more resilient. This new bill would require a similar analysis for any utility infrastructure project costing more than $25 million.

This policy may sound radical to people familiar with grid planning, noted John, but may sound almost banal to utility customers that would expect public regulators already require the lowest cost method of meeting system needs. Anya explained that when the utility makes a nearly-guaranteed 12% return on money invested in infrastructure, it has little incentive to examine alternatives. The Distributed Energy Resources Authority would remove the utility (and its conflict of interest) from the planning process by taking bids for the best solutions to grid needs.

The Authority would play another important market-opening role: sharing anonymous, aggregated electricity system production and use data. Anya noted the significance of the bill:

“The utility holding onto the data with iron firsts is…one of the main things that’s preventing markets from flourishing…This bill says it’s our data and give it to us…it shouldn’t be that radical.”

Anya emphasized that this benefits advocates that have long played at a disadvantage when challenging utility proposals: “When you’re countering the utility, the answer is always ‘you’ve got your data wrong.’” The Authority’s openness with data would also ensure that non-utility companies could make effective counter-proposals to utility infrastructure upgrades. Finally, the data will help the District effectively evaluate its $20 million per year energy efficiency investments:

“It’s been going on for six or seven years now, and no one can, with a straight face, tell you exactly how much of an impact it’s had.”

The bill has a lot of organized support, says Anya, but it’s arcane. It’s not as easy to communicate to the general public as 100% renewables.

Solar United Neighbors (SUN) has been building more than a couple good policy ideas in D.C. The organizer of solar buying cooperatives has now served over 3,000 customers that have installed a collective 20 megawatts of solar. In addition to six states already served, solar co-ops were launched for the first time in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New Jersey this year, with launches planned in Texas, Indiana, and Colorado in 2019.

The strategy is simple. Group solar people together to simplify the process of identifying an installer, smooth the permitting process, improve customer service, and negotiate group discounts.

“All the things that make solar complicated, we address as a group…by the time we’re giving a group to a solar installer, it’s people that have good roofs…know what they’re getting into…usually it costs an installer $3,000 to get a customer…a lot of the savings are passed on to the customer.”

For individuals outside the area served by SUN cooperatives (or that already have solar), it’s possible to receive similar services by joining Solar United Neighbors for a fee.

The cooperatives build on the relationships established in the process of going solar to talk to members about policy. In fact, unlike most installers who are focused on closing a deal, Solar United Neighbors explains the policies behind the solar opportunity — like net metering — from the beginning. They help solar owners communicate their solar interests to elected officials and build community.

The secret sauce to Solar United Neighbors may be in the agnostic approach to solar.

“We don’t talk to people about why they want to go solar…we have people bring their own values to the process…we’re very pragmatic. In West Virginia, we have people from the oil and gas industry and the coal industry participating in our groups and they’re really excited about it…it underscores the pragmatic aspect of solar––there’s no reason not to do it.”

John wrapped up by asking Anya what advice she has for cities that are pursuing 100% renewable energy goals. Her main point was to avoid being too idealistic:

“You really have to be serious and real about the impact on people’s bills…equity needs to be taken seriously…in terms of who’s at the table, who gets to weigh in and help design the program, and programs set up to mitigate impact in terms of bills.”

Despite the need for pragmatism, Anya says, there are so many win-win solutions on the table. Her organization will be out helping people find those win-win opportunities, now in 12 states in 2019.

This is the 64th edition of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Director of Democratic Energy John Farrell that shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Tags: 100 percent renewable energy, audio, solar energy, Washington DC solar

John Farrell directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at [email protected]