As utilities attempt to co-opt “community solar”, SELC pushes back

This graphic illustrates how community solar allows various community members to benefit from solar even if they are unable to install a solar system at their home or business. (© SELC)

As some utilities wage battles to enact policies that make solar power more expensive for their customers, it’s no surprise that they are getting pushback from customers who are fighting for the right to go solar. Now, utilities have launched a major rebranding campaign to improve their “solar image.” As reported in the Huffington Post, a utility trade association is trying to upgrade the industry’s image with a PR consultant. One of the core recommendations has been to start calling utility-scale solar, where utilities build their own solar installations, something more appealing like “community solar.”

“Utility-scale solar, owned by the utility, sounds like the utilities are going to be in complete control,” a PR consultant explained to utility executives. “We say, ‘Community solar for all’… We should proceed with the terminology that is more favorable to us. And ‘community’ is clearly more favorable to us.”

But community solar is already the term used to describe a growing trend quite different from what utilities are trying to claim. Community solar projects are sited within local communities to provide economic and environmental benefits of solar to homes and businesses that voluntarily participate. Think solar installations on brownfield sites within underserved communities, or panels on a local community center. The advantage is community solar allows people to access the benefits of solar power even if they are unable to install panels on their own home or business.

These projects are meant to be community-driven, with a model that allows community members to have more control over how their energy needs are met, and to receive real savings on their monthly electric bill based on the solar power generated from their share of the project —which is a very different proposition from the old, outdated monopoly model that utilities are attempting to “re-brand.”

With the emergence of community solar, SELC released the guide “Community Solar: Best Practices for Utilities in the South” to ensure that these projects are structured in a way that benefits customers that need it most. As we push for true community solar, we’re encouraging utilities to implement on-bill crediting, allowing customers to see the economic benefit of their investment without requiring direct payment, and setting up structures that encourage participation from low-income communities. Central to all of these policies is setting a value for the solar power generated that accurately reflects the benefits it provides to power producers, neighborhoods, and the environment. 

Fortunately, some utilities in the South – especially the member-owned rural electric co-ops and city-owned utilities – are leading the way in offering innovative Community Solar programs to their customers. Early leaders include Roanoke EMC in North Carolina, Chattanooga EPB in Tennessee, and Walton EMC in Georgia.

“These are great examples of utilities that have shown the leadership to launch impressive community solar programs,” said Katie Ottenweller, leader of SELC’s Solar Initiative. “Community Solar has the potential to make solar power accessible and affordable to all, but utilities co-opting this language to protect their image sets these efforts back. Instead of spending money trying to make it sound like utilities are doing the right thing, we hope to see more utilities actually do the right thing by embracing true community solar.”

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