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DOE Aims to Expand Community Solar with $15 Million Push

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wants to increase access to affordable solar energy for communities across the nation—and it’s using $15 million to do so. The Obama administration announced on April 17 a funding opportunity through Solar Market Pathways, which aims to increase solar deployment by “making it simpler and easier for residents and businesses to join in shared, community solar photovoltaic (PV) projects.”

Shared or community solar facilities allow multiple customers to buy or lease panels in a centralized array, and then ‘share’ the total energy output. “Community solar provides an important role … for those living in apartments or condominiums, for homeowners with a shaded roof, or those who might see solar on their property as a hassle,” said renewable energy strategist Carl Siegrist. The large-scale construction of a community solar project also reduces overall costs, allowing more individuals to utilize renewable energy.

“Existing shared solar programs managed by utilities, entrepreneurial communities, and innovative solar developers are reaching a largely untapped market and realizing the financial benefits of the purchasing power of larger groups,” writes Anna Brockway, a fellow of the DOE’s SunShot Initiative. “Such programs have many siting options for solar energy systems, including municipal buildings, school and church rooftops, and reclaimed lands like landfills.”

SunShot’s Progress

The DOE’s SunShot Initiative was created to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources by the end of the decade. In mid-February, the DOE announced that its goal was 60 percent accomplished. Tom Kimbis, vice president of executive affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), commended the progress, but acknowledged the work that lies ahead. “SEIA applauds the hard work and success of the SunShot Initiative,” Kimbis said in a statement. “However, barriers still exist that prevent solar from reaching its full potential, so we look forward to the SunShot team’s continued work driving smart public policies and reducing soft costs.”

Affordable Solar for All

Over the next five to 10 years, Solar Market Pathways will assist the Obama administration’s goal to double our nation’s renewable energy generation—for a second time—by 2020. Regional, state and locally-owned entities, along with tribal governments and certain nonprofits may submit projects for funding through Solar Market Pathways. Awards are expected to range from $100,000 to $4 million.

Solar not only benefits average-income residents, it can help empower disadvantaged communities and enhance the quality of life for these families and individuals. The Telluride Housing Authority realized the potential of shared solar and proposed an affordable housing solar program. Having set a goal to derive 100 percent of its municipal power from renewable sources by 2020, the town of Telluride plans to buy 450 additional solar panels in the Paradox Valley Community Solar Array (it purchased 215 panels already). Eighty miles west of Telluride, the 1.12-megawatt solar array developed by Clean Energy Collective (CEC) will now provide energy bill credits for affordable housing residents, helping to alleviate a portion of their electricity costs.

Elyse Cherry, chief executive of Boston Community Capital, which finances community development, recognizes that high up-front solar costs present a barrier for many. “We think lower-income communities are entitled to exactly the same services and availability to technology and energy sources as their wealthier neighbors,” Cherry told the Washington Post.

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