Solar Sharing Takes Shape in Massachusetts

Developer Bill Bennett stands next to a solar field in Edgartown that provides renewable energy to local nonprofits. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Developer Bill Bennett stands next to a solar field in Edgartown that provides renewable energy to local nonprofits. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

MARTHA'S VINEYARD — "Solar energy is for sharing" is Bill Bennett’s motto. The electrician and solar-energy developer foresees an all-encompassing solar-powered future that delivers renewable energy to the rich and poor, to those living in the country and in the city.

“I think solar panels will be everywhere and they’ll be used in ways I can’t even imagine,” Bennett said enthusiastically while driving to one of his solar fields near the Edgartown airport.

So far, Bennett, 51, is making good on his mission. On Martha’s Vineyard, where he grew up in the family electrical business, he’s installed dozens of solar panels on homes and businesses, built two large solar arrays and has plans for more.

The two large arrays, built in late 2012 by his company Solar Invictus, do more than just generate renewable energy. They are part of a cooperative movement on Martha's Vineyard and across Massachusetts that allows utility customers (even renters) who lack the money or a place to install panels to own a piece of a solar project and receive the energy.

Thanks to a provision in Massachusetts renewable-energy law, called virtual net metering, solar energy can be spread among the masses, primarily through variations on two main methods. The first, which Bennett employs, is a commercial-lease model that allows producers of renewable energy built on private land to assign net-metering credits to other electric utility customers. In Bennett's case, recipients are mostly local nonprofits, such as the YMCA, a halfway house and a public charter school. Those institutions receive renewable energy, which they pay Bennett at a rate below the cost of standard electricity on their monthly electric bills. 

The second approach is similar, but allows ratepayers who lack finances for a full project — the average installation costs between $10,000 and $20,000 — to buy shares of a larger solar project. Through the formation of a nonprofit cooperative, investors typically pay between $3,000 and $5,000 for shares in a solar project. In return, they receive immediate tax credits, net-metering credits and, depending on the ownership structure, a share of the revenue. The payback on investment can be as short as two years. After that, investors may receive low-rate renewable energy for the life of a solar project, which typically last at least 20 years.

“It’s an amazing thing for people who want to be involved on solar and don’t have the rooftop,” Bennett said.

BrewsterSolarGarden.jpg

A community solar garden in Brewster was built on unused town property and is leased by 50 members of a cooperative. (My Generation Energy Inc.)Community-based solar, also called community-shared solar, is gaining momentum across the state. After Massachusetts approved its Green Communities Act of 2008, Brewster became the first municipality to lease a community solar project. In 2012, a 346-kilowatt solar garden built on unusable town property began delivering power to the grid and renewable energy to 50 local members, who paid about $5,000 apiece for "sun shares." Over the course of five years, each member will receive about $6,400 in credits on their electric bill, or about $100 per month. 

Other projects followed. The most recent is a 294-kilowatt array in the town of Harvard. Dedicated in June, the project is jointly owned by 43 residents and four small businesses in seven surrounding communities. The Harvard solar field is already planning a second phase and at least a dozen more projects are in the works across the state. The concept is being promoted through the state’s Solarize Mass outreach program and local developers and advocacy groups, such as Co-op Power in Hatfield.

“It helps folks get their energy from renewable sources, local sources and within their own means for projects,” said Diego Angarita, outreach manager for Co-op Power.

Through its regional network, Co-op Power brings together installers, community leaders and low-income groups to promote affordable solar electric and solar hot water systems. Co-op Power is itself a cooperative, with four councils in Massachusetts that reach into Vermont and Rhode Island. The group plans to sell shares in its first community-shared solar project on a building in Greenfield. The public can also join the cooperative for about $250, which allows members to share in profits of the organization through investment in the solar projects it helps start.

Angarita noted that cooperative power, community power and virtual net metering take on different ownership models. “It’s confusing and consumers should read the fine print,” he said.

The confusion exists on many levels. The financing and cash flow models, in particular, are complicated, especially for local banks that are at times needed to finance community solar projects. The equipment and real estate typically serve as collateral for a loan.

“Building them is easy. The financing is the hard part,” Bennett said.

Structuring the deals also involves a maze of investors, developers, utility companies, an aggregator of renewable-energy credit and an ownership structure, all of which can add months or years to planning a shared-solar project.

Bennett is not alone on Martha’s Vineyard in spreading the gospel of community solar. Vineyard Power, started in 2009, has more than 1,350 co-op members and has built solar arrays, with local and municipal investment, on two former landfills. The co-op also has built solar carports and electric-vehicle charging stations at a grocery store. Its primary goal is to own 10-20 offshore turbines with enough electricity to power 75 percent of the island’s power. The intent is for outside investors to fund the estimated $200 million turbines and turn them over to the co-op after the funders achieve a return on their investment.

“It’s a way to transfer ownership from the private sector into a community-owned cooperative,” said Richard Andre, president of Vineyard Power, during a dedication of the solar carports in 2012.

Will it last?

Despite their complexity, these kind of projects are moving forward. But, the state’s virtual net-metering rules are controversial. Its critics, mostly utility companies such as National Grid and Northeast Utilities, say it's costly to track the participants in virtual net metering and to maintain the infrastructure that distributes the electricity back and forth to the power grid.

Various proposals have sought to end the practice of assigning renewable power to electric utility customers. This year, utility companies lobbied the Legislature to change the net-metering rules. However, on the final day of the most recent session, a compromise was reached that extends the caps on solar generations and allows metering programs to continue while a task force analyzes the impact on the state.

Developers say any limits would put a stop to a trend in the solar industry that is just beginning to take hold. “If virtual net metering goes away these projects are going to disappear,” Bennett said.

Additional benefits

Collective solar arrays protect open space, or at least stall development, and they bring new uses to fallow land, according to advocates. The Brewster solar garden took over a sand pit that served as an unauthorized town dump. Since the array was installed, members of the co-op transformed the site into a “forest-edge” meadow with native plants and grasses that attract birds and other wildlife.

Bennett’s array in Edgartown was originally slated as a housing development, but after a protracted dispute over its plan, a solar project became the simplest solution.

While some criticize large solar projects for degrading nature or destroying farmland, Bennett said his solar panels are noninvasive and easy to remove in case other uses for the land are needed. Unlike other solar projects that use cement foundations and rows of gravel, his solar fields are landscaped with shrubs and grasses to create a semi-natural setting suitable for grazing.

Other solar advocates are promoting the concept of shared solar as a version of community-supported agriculture (CSA). In the agricultural sector, this popular funding practice helps consumers finance farmers through upfront payments for future farm products. A solar CSA enables residents to finance a solar project on a local farm. Instead of produce, consumers receive a share of the low-cost renewable electricity. The farmer, in turn, receives lease payments from the sales of electricity to the grid.

“The idea is you can buy you fruits and vegetable form the farm and your electricity from the farm,” said Daniel Turpin, a solar installer based in Westport who exploring several CSA solar projects on farms and even housing developments in southeastern Massachusetts.

Bennett has already installed a solar field on a farm in West Tisbury. The 1-acre, 300-kilowatt array at Whippoorwill Farm delivers renewable energy to local homes and businesses, while lease payments for the electricity help the farmer pay his mortgage. He said the project has rescued the farm from financial hardship and made the community a partner in its success.

Environmental advocacy groups also like that community-owned solar helps local economies and businesses while reducing the need for fossil fuels.

“While there may be growing pains, residents would be wise to take advantage of this unique opportunity to begin taking ownership of the power grid,” said Joel Wool, energy advocate for Clean Water Action in Boston. “It's equally critical for state legislators and regulators to advance and protect policies that let the sun shine on communities.”

Of course, there are plenty of advocates on the ground willing to make it happen such as Bennett. “I think community solar is freakin’ awesome,” he said. “It just makes total sense. It’s my passion."

This story was funded through a grant from the Marion-based Island Foundation. It's the third article in a four-part series on grassroots renewable-energy efforts ongoing in southern New England.