Community Solar Opens Door for Everyone

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Tompkins Weekly    11-14-16

By Terry Carroll

The solar industry has had plenty to celebrate over the past few years: Declining prices and improving technology coupled with government incentives and rebates have seen the solar industry undergo tremendous growth. This past month, a particularly notable event occurred that could help everyday consumers even more. I’m not talking about the solar roof presentation from electric carmaker Tesla, but about the ribbon-cutting for New York’s first Community Shared Solar Farm in Trumansburg by local installer Renovus Solar.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0034.JPGThe idea of solar farms is not new and has existed in some states for many years, but until recently companies in New York state couldn’t create farms serving more than one customer without a workaround that required multiple utility meters and thus higher prices for consumers. However, guidelines put out at the tail-end of 2015 finally created a model that has allowed companies to start work on solar farms throughout the state.

This is fantastic news for anyone who has considered “going solar” but was hamstrung by an old or shaded roof, or for renters who wanted solar electricity but had nowhere to place the panels. Community Shared Solar allows consumers to own panels on land owned or leased by the solar developer and still take advantage of the panel’s electric production. It works through a concept called “virtual net metering” that is very similar to the model that allows homeowners with solar panels to take advantage of excess production when the panels aren’t producing power. In virtual net metering a homeowners electricity account will be credited with the production of the solar panels they own even when they’re not located on their property. That means if the sun is shining and your panels are producing energy for the electric grid, then you’re accumulating credits on your utility bill that will be used before you pay out-of-pocket for the supply or delivery of electricity.

Whether you rent or own, solar is now a possibility – even if you’re thinking of moving within the area. That’s because solar farm location isn’t tied to the town or even the county where you live. Instead, it depends on New York Independent System Operator Load Zones that often span multiple counties.

For Tompkins County residents this means a solar farm can be located anywhere in Load Zone “C,” which includes Steuben, Chemung and Tioga counties, among others, and as long as that farm is serviced by the same utility you receive electricity from, i.e. NYSEG, then you can buy into the farm and start getting your electricity from the sun. Even if you move houses, as long as you stay within that load zone, your solar panel production stays with you.

This is a game-changer for thousands of Southern Tier residents who have previously been unable to take advantage of solar electricity because of where they live. It opens up new markets for solar companies to provide services to renters. And it also opens the door for possibilities like Pay-As-You-Go programs that allow consumers to directly buy energy from local farms as they use it without having to buy the panels – just like we now buy electricity from our utility – a model that could become the first real option for low-income families to take advantage of solar energy.

There are some concerns with community solar that must be addressed – some solar companies have been approaching farmers and offering predatory land leases, while a small number of municipalities are concerned that solar farms may take over previously bountiful farmland. However, with proper education, regulation and management, solar farms can help create a new energy future where a much higher number of consumers than ever before are not only getting more of their energy from clean sources, but also saving money on their energy bills and taking strides to become energy independent.

For more information, visit or call a local installer to learn more about all your solar options.

Terry Carroll is an energy educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

Image: An aerial view of New York’s first community-shared solar farm, installed on Jacksonville Road by local company Renovous Solar.

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