Community Solar – One Year Later

IMG_4977In Seattle, energy rates are low and the skies are often cloudy. Not ideal conditions for investing in solar energy. To make things even more challenging, we decided to put an array atop the Holiday Apartments, one of CHH’s low-income housing tax credit properties with a complicated ownership structure.

The Holiday Apartment’s 26 kW solar array started generating power in December 2014. The first community solar array on an affordable housing building in Washington State, it is a pilot with Seattle City Light to counter the notion that green energy is the province of the wealthy elite.

Community Solar is crowd-funded solar generation that allows individuals and businesses to invest in and receive benefits from a system located on a community-based facility. Instead of installing their own rooftop system, participants purchase a piece of a system that’s located elsewhere and right-sized for their budgets. It allows people who can’t or don’t want to invest in their own system to reap the benefits of solar, including renters and those who can’t afford the upfront costs.

The Holiday Apartments community solar array was made possible by upfront financing and administration by Seattle City Light. For as little as $150, City Light utility customers purchased 925 “solar units” of the Holiday Apartments array, which entitled them to a portion of the production payments and the value of the electricity produced at a “community solar rate.”  The bite-sized units were sized to return $150 back to the customer over the life of the program, plus a little extra.

Thanks to a sunny year, the array exceeded year-round productivity expectations by more than 20%. In the first 12 months, the Holiday Apartments installation produced enough energy to power three homes for a year. Take a look at this nifty dashboard for real time solar data.

Customers told us that they loved the triple bottom line nature of community solar. Through their small financial investment, they were helping to reduce the long-term operating costs of affordable housing while also supporting clean, local solar power.

In the fall, just as we were developing a strategy for expanding community solar to more affordable buildings, City Light made an announcement that put our plans on hold. Rapid adoption of solar in Seattle, increased production due to sunny weather, and decreasing electricity sales meant that City Light would reach the state-imposed cap for solar production incentives much earlier than originally thought, likely sometime in 2016. Customers were told to expect a proportional 31% reduction in incentive payments. This means that Holiday Apartment community solar participants may not make their money back.

With this uncertainty, came a re-evaluation of how we might bring solar to more affordable housing buildings. There are a number of feasible concepts, such as third party owned systems and direct ownership, but community solar would be difficult under the current conditions.

That’s why we’ve joined with solar industry allies, affordable housing advocates, and solar customers to work to improve and expand the state production incentive structure and support clean energy policies that will better serve the needs of the affordable housing sector.  We will be tracking important solar legislation this year and will be advocating in Olympia for outcomes that expand the available options for solar deployment on affordable housing. We encourage you to join us in these efforts to enable low income access to clean energy benefits and ensure a bright energy future for all.