Community solar for Santa Fe?

Community Supported Solar Project, Taos - Teresa Seamster

By Teresa Seamster, Northern New Mexico Group and Esha Chiocchio, Santa Fe Watershed Association

Santa Fe Community Solar Garden – the name conjures up a sunny field with upturned solar panels collecting the daily requirement of energy for the people who live here. A few acres planted in panels and clean fixed-cost energy for the next 50 years. The image is not far-fetched.

New Mexicans, more than most Americans, continue to feel the harmful consequences of a coal, oil and gas based economy. These heavy industries release carcinogens, carbon and other harmful air pollutants that cause diseases such as asthma, cancer and respiratory illness. Their high usage of water to mine and hydrofrack reduces and contaminates scarce water supplies in the state. Continued burning of these fossil fuels will add more carbon emissions, which are already dangerously above the “safe” 350-ppm benchmark and contribute to increased climate disruption.

As Senator Martin Heinrich announced in his first speech to the Senate this June, “It is time to think big. We must solve climate change within a decade.”

Leading by Example

Santa Fe, both the city and county, have decided they are up to the job.

This spring, the Santa Fe City Council and Board of County Commissioners passed resolutions supporting the development of community solar facilities. In addition, the county approved a resolution in January that requires that the county “lead by example.

Consistent with that policy directive, the County has started to incorporate energy efficient and renewable energy systems on County owned facilities. The resolution goes on to say, “The Board recognizes that buildings consume a large proportion of energy used in the United States and that it is in the best public interest and the best interest of Santa Fe County to address the county’s existing facilities to achieve the goal of conserving natural resources as well as reduce the operational costs at each county facility.”

The City’s resolution calls for “directing staff to work with the Public Service Company of New Mexico and the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission to implement a Community Solar Program for Santa Fe.”

The public has demonstrated it is strongly supportive of such a move and has indicated that it wants a local clean sustainable energy source to meet these goals.

Affordable ownership of solar energy without any maintenance or hassles is the premise behind Community Solar Gardens that are booming in numbers, dropping in cost, and available to all ratepayers.

How do customers benefit from Community Solar Gardens?

Some of the many significant benefits of community solar gardens are:
• Most efficient location - the solar array is centrally placed on a single plot of land best suited for solar collection (often land is donated by the community)
• Universal access – all homeowners, renters, businesses, companies and government entities can get solar through the low cost group-purchase of panels or with a low interest loan through the solar company or utility
• Simple metering –monthly bill credits and any performance-based incentives (PBI) are automatically calculated and applied directly to the owners’ electric bills
• No maintenance – the solar installation company maintains the solar facility and guarantees solar production for an extended period - up to 50 years
• No hassles – solar energy is available to everyone – no holes on your roof, no maintenance of solar panels or inverters, no liability, options if you move, and no additional costs
• Save money – solar energy is collected from sunlight and requires no mining, drilling or refining to be converted into energy. Once the solar collection facility is built and generating electricity, those owners immediately receive a credit on their electric bill. This results in tens of thousands of dollars saved on energy bills
• Transferrable energy savings – the panels and the energy produced are transferrable assets that can be sold with your house, put in your will or transferred to another address if you move
• Turnkey operation – you only purchase the number of panels you want (estimated at $800 per panel and you can purchase as little as 1 panel). Most energy efficient homes use between 100-300kilowatts (kWh) a month (4 to 12 panels), and average homes use between 400-600 kWh a month (16-24 panels).

What do Utility Companies like about Community Solar?

The benefits to the utility are significant.

1. Renewable energy
Utilities are facing the choice of paying the high costs of modernizing and reducing pollutants from old coal fired power plants or financing expensive natural gas plants or turning to renewable energy sources to meet growing demand.
2. Meeting mandates
Power companies across the country are being mandated by their state legislatures to increase their renewable energy portfolios. Community solar that is provided to their grid at no cost to the utility is a desirable source of extra energy and worth the reduced rate on the customer bill.
3. REC Sales
Utilities receive Renewable Energy Credits when Community Solar gardens are installed. These can be sold by the utility to REC purchasing groups for additional income.
4. Peak power savings to utilities
Solar energy is generated when many utilities need it the most - on long sunny summer days when utilities experience their greatest demand for electricity. Community Solar saves the utility money by providing additional peak energy (measured in kWhs) at a lower rate than other providers of peak power.
5. No Capital Expenses and Fixed Cost Recovery
Community Solar projects are funded through ratepayer participation, providing utilities with local renewable energy on a per kWh basis without having to fund the construction of the arrays. Additionally, Community Solar programs allow some utilities to recover some (if not all) of their fixed costs associated with solar energy. This is an important issue for utilities, especially investor owned utilities, and carries significant value.

When will we see Community Solar Gardens in Santa Fe?

The sooner the better!

Solar companies around the country have come up with precise plans and software that make the installation and administration of solar gardens simple, affordable and beneficial for the public, the municipality and the utility.

One Colorado based company, Clean Energy Collective (CEC), has 11 community solar projects underway with Xcel Energy and another 13 projects with 9 other utilities across the country (including Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos). The goal is about “moving the needle in the direction of solar” while enjoying the immediate benefits of cost savings, working with communities, developing clean energy and living sustainably.

Clean Energy Collective has programs that help utilities recognize the financial benefits of solar energy, all without forcing other ratepayers to subsidize the program. It’s a solution that makes financial sense for the utility and customers, resulting in a true win-win scenario.

Reprising Senator Heinrich’s words – we have to take steps now to solve dangerous climate change. Repeating the County’s words – “as the world’s demand for energy continues to rise, solar power is one of the most abundant resources providing clean, cost effective energy around the world. Harnessing the power of the sun is critical in global efforts to create a sustainable future and New Mexico and Santa Fe County are ideally suited to take advantage of these benefits.”