A successful community solar garden partnership launched by a team of volunteers out of a garage in rural Minnesota is pushing its boundaries to Vermont, after concluding that a development model first introduced in 2017 can be extended across the United States.
The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) got its start when it joined with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to install a community solar system two years ago, Energy News Network reports. Now, the organization is helping Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) in rural Windsor and Windham counties deliver solar electricity to 50 low-income households.
RREAL Director Jason Edens, a one-time recipient under the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), launched the original project out of his garage. “Their goal was to alleviate the burden of high energy bills in northern Minnesota by installing solar units for low-income households,” ENN notes. That objective makes just as good sense in Vermont, where “one-fifth of residents experience fuel poverty, meaning they spend more than 10% of their income on energy.”
“We just see this enormous volume of people who don’t have the resources to heat their homes and pay their rent, put food on the table, and pay their health care costs,” said SEVCA Executive Director Steve Geller.
Figures for the 2016-17 heating season show 26,557 of Vermont’s 258,535 households receiving US$19 million in LIHEAP support. The $300,000 project is expected to produce electricity worth $23,000 per year over 25 years and pay for itself in 13 years.
“SEVCA had experimented with solar power as a form of energy assistance before teaming up with RREAL,” Energy News Network notes. “These were small-scale projects installing panels on individual homes, much like RREAL’s flagship solar assistance program.”
But “the current project in Vermont involves building a community solar project—a more cost-efficient way to provide solar power,” ENN adds. “With community solar, people who can’t install their own panels can buy subscriptions to solar panels elsewhere in their community. The energy contribution of those panels is then taken out of their utility bills.”
Edens explained that community solar is easier to integrate with energy assistance programs because it isn’t tied to a specific home. “The community action agency can assign the subscription or the share to a family for one year or five years, but then have the ability to shift that capacity to a new family that is now income eligible or has moved into the service territory,” he told ENN. “It’s a really elegant way for a community action agency to use those subscriptions.”
The approach also gives the local agencies a bit of stability, compared to the fluctuating operating funds they receive each year from a deeply dysfunctional U.S. Congress. “By having some local control over some local capacity, it at least ensures that the community action agency or the energy assistance service provider can meet the needs of a certain percentage of its clients,” Edens said.