Solar Demand: Beyond the Dollars

a guest post by Ken Whiteside, Director of Business Development at ONTILITY, LLC.

Solar Demand Beyond the Dollars The solar market has been driven by dollars for quite a while. Prices have plummeted and the holy grail of grid parity has been achieved in some regions of the country. PV modules have become a commodity, installation soft costs are being driven down by every means possible, and new financial tools and techniques have been introduced. There is another driver, however, one that demonstrates that the desire to be part of the solar energy "movement" runs deeper than dollars.

It started with community solar, a way for those who don’t own property suitable for solar (or don’t own property at all) to benefit from solar energy. A significant number of very successful projects have been brought on-line and the participants are reaping the financial benefits. Recently though, people are supporting community solar projects for other reasons and by some non-traditional means.

In November, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) launched a crowdsourcing effort to raise money to install solar energy systems on and develop educational programs for a group of schools nationwide. In a matter of a few weeks nearly 300 supporters contributed more than $54,000. From the 79 school districts being considered for participation, NRDC has chosen a North Carolina school as the site for its pilot project and will begin work in early 2014.

Other similar crowd-sourced initiatives are also in development:

The City of Portland, Oregon launched its Solar Forward Fund, a campaign to support installation of solar PV systems on public sites citywide. When the fund reaches its first goal of $50,000, the first system will be installed at Oliver P. Lent Elementary School. While contributions are tax deductible as charitable contributions, utility company rules and program goals in Portland prevent donors from benefitting directly from the power produced by these systems.

The Philadelphia Solar Schools Initiative, a joint program between Solar States and Clean Currents, will provide solar power and renewable energy education for Philadelphia schools with no up-front costs. The package includes both solar and wind energy systems, and courses for students. The goal is to equip 20 schools with a total of 1.5 MW of power production capacity, with students helping with design and installation.

Kehilla Community Synagogue, Oakland, California wants to build a 26kW rooftop solar array, and is asking for help through the nonprofit organization RE-volv and the revolving Solar Seed Fund. For every dollar donated to its $65,000 crowdsourcing campaign, Kehilla says it will save $2 over the life of its solar energy system -- and another $3 will be invested in other community solar energy projects. Elsewhere, people are using community solar projects in ways other than to offset their own utility bills. In Harvard, Massachusetts, about 25 miles north of Boston, for example, the Harvard Solar Garden is scheduled for completion in 2014. As is typical of community solar projects, participants can purchase shares and get a rebate on their utility bills or not so typical of community solar projects, they can donate the net metering credit to their church, other charitable organizations or even other citizens. Churches are a favored recipient: they tend to use a large amount of electricity, but congregations, especially those in historic New England communities, don't want solar panels on the roofs. Besides, many churches, with their steep-pitched roofs surrounded by trees aren't good candidate for solar even if the aesthetics were acceptable.

All these initiatives point to a similar trend and a desire among large groups of people to see more solar installed. People want to live in clean, sustainable communities. They want to leave a positive legacy. They want to set good examples for intelligent energy production and use. Given the tools and the opportunities, they will embrace solar, even when it doesn't put money directly into their pockets.

Ken Whiteside photo Ken Whiteside has been a fan of solar energy for decades. His first hands-on experience was installing solar on off-grid houses around Telluride, Colorado in the 1990’s (summer in the San Juan Mtns. - somebody had to do it). From his home in Austin, Ken writes and works for widespread adoption of solar electricity, smart energy production and use, and sustainability.
 

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