In the summer of 2015, the sun shone even brighter in New York when the Shared Renewables Program was approved, making shared solar power possible across the state. This is an exciting policy development, because it has the potential to enable everyone to access clean and affordable energy for the first time. The Vote Solar national campaign highlights the achievements of the state of New York in serving as a national leader in making solar power accessible for all – especially in urban areas and low to moderate-income communities, which have traditionally been excluded from solar power efforts.
Shared solar is a concept that is intended to expand access to solar energy beyond those who have the ability to put the solar panels on their own roof. As with other shared renewable models, the energy generated off-site is fed into the grid, and then the “subscriber” is credited by the electricity company as if it were generated on his or her property (in the case of solar, on their roof). The beauty of solar is that it can work just about anywhere, since it can easily be installed over existing infrastructure. Parking lots are perfect for shared solar, for example. Shared models reduce the burden of initial investment associated with installation, and the credits can significantly reduce one’s utility bill.
The Shared Solar Program is funded by NY-Sun, a $1 billion initiative to expand solar capacity throughout New York State by utilizing public funds in a strategic manner to build a self-sustaining solar market. NY-Sun is part of Governor Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), an initiative that intends for New York to transition to 50 percent renewables by the year 2030. Sharing his vision, are the New York Public Service Commission (PSC), the New York Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the New York Power Authority (NYPA), and the Long Island Power Authority.
Recently, the Public Service Commission (PSC) approved ConEdison’s petition for a pilot program to provide shared solar to low-income customers. The petition, submitted on October 31st, 2016, points out that there has been a complete lack of participation of low-income people in the shared renewables program, referred to as Community Distributed Generation (CDG). In the first year of the program, CDG required at least 20 percent of the project participants to be low-income customers, however, the projects were not able to recruit enough low-income customers to meet their goal. Recognizing that there were a void of projects of the sort in its service area, ConEdison developed the proposed utility-based shared solar pilot program. This program has the unique ability to provide low-income customers with the opportunity to access clean renewable energy that would otherwise be unavailable to them, while simultaneously demonstrating how solar assets can be beneficial to this group of customers and to their customers in general.
While shared solar is an exciting innovation that has the potential to provide “solar for all”, it will not truly democratize solar unless efforts are made to help reach those who are disadvantaged from accessing it, especially since they are the ones who would benefit from it the most. It is commendable that ConEdison is taking the initiative to use utility-ownership to reach their low-income customers, but the state government must integrate regulations and incentives into their policies to ensure that clean renewable energy projects work for low to moderate-income communities’ benefits in a more sustainable and inclusive way. Additionally, community organizations must take it upon themselves to develop their own smaller-scale shared solar projects that benefit their community members directly. Community organizing could be an especially effective tactic in a dense urban center like New York City.