Community Solar Farms for Condominiums

A New Dawn for Condominiums: Community Solar Farms

There is some good solar power news for Maine’s condominium and HOA communities. We have spoken in past articles of the unfortunate political restraints on the development of renewable energy sources in Maine by the prior Governor Paul LePage administration. Things have changed with two new solar power pieces of legislature (LD 91 – “An act to Eliminate Gross Metering” and LD 1711 – “An Act to Promote Solar Energy Projects and Distributed Generation Resources in Maine”). With these recent bills signed by Governor Janet Mills, a new solar horizon will brighten the growth of Maine’s solar power opportunities for the condo world.

One of the most cost effective methods of generating solar power electrical energy is by the use of large Community Solar Farms (CSFs). These CSFs are located either on-site or off-site with large arrays of solar panels. The power industry in Maine lobbied successful to restrain their growth by encouraging a bill to be passed in 2016 to drop ‘net metering’ for ‘gross metering’ to lower the investment return potential making solar arrays less favorable. LD 91 eliminated this encumbrance.

This bill was shortly followed with LD 1711 removing the limit of only 10 meters per solar array and instead placed limits on the size of the array system with no limit on the number of meters. It increased the solar panel limit from 250 – 400 solar panels to 20,000 panels per array. This is a game changer. With no restrictions on the number of subscribers and the size of the solar system increasing to 5 MW (megawatts), economies of scale can be reached making it economically feasible for condos and HOAs to participate in a low cost solar future.

Options: Community Solar Farms

So how will this all work? There are optional paths a community can take to join a CSF and thus long a careful study of which option is right for your community is key to success. Also some basic community solar farms facts should be well understood. One of the benefits of a CSF is it can be located elsewhere if the community does not have suitable land exposed to optimal sunlight. This opens the door to land-restricted city condos or suburban HOAs who do not want solar arrays visible in their backyard.

The two options for Community Solar Farms are either: (1) Direct Ownership or (2) Subscriber Service. Keep in mind the actual electrical energy produced by the CSF does not directly go to the subscribers but rather to Maine’s electrical grid.  It is the economic benefits that are transferred to the condo unit owners whether through direct ownership share allocation or subscriber electric rate reductions. Currently LD 1711 allows only the Direct Ownership option. Next year the Subscriber Service option will be available.

The Direct Ownership option requires the community to raise funds to upfront purchase the solar array equipment including buying or leasing the solar array land and pay all maintenance expenses. There are a small number of Maine firms currently assisting communities to manage this type of project. The regional power companies (i.e.,CMP and Emera Maine) are required to track the power generated by the CSF arrays and apply a credit each month to unit owners’ electric bills. As an example, if the unit owner has a 15% share of a 20,000 kilowatts-hour/ month solar array then the unit owner’s bill would be credited a 3,000 kilowatts bill reduction. It is estimated it may take up to 9 years for the initial investment to be paid off. After that only service charges will be incurred. If an owner moves, the shares can be transferred if the owner remains in the same electrical region. Also, the owner can sell the shares.

The Subscription Service option does not include ownership of the solar array but avoids upfront investment and requires a monthly participation fee to immediately receive lower electrical rates (approximately 10%). This option therefore has a lower potential long term saving with reduced commitment. As mentioned earlier, this option will be available next year with more rules to follow.

If climate change and burning fossil fuel in the future bothers you and you have been asking what your community can do about it, Maine condos and HOAs have new possibilities. You will need to do some research and seek knowledgeable sources of information. A good start would be the Natural Resources Council of Maine. There is a solar power future in Maine about to dawn. Will you be up to see it?

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED-AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media June 2020 edition
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