Down on the (solar) farmBy Boone Guyton on 03/05/2012
There’s a growing awareness of the need for cleaner alternatives to conventional energy sources across the country and the world. Climate change, energy security, a hedge against rising fuel costs and more local jobs are all reasons for the growth in solar, wind, geothermal and energy efficiency.
Community solar projects are one way to make solar energy more affordable and available to a greater number of people.
“A community solar farm or solar garden is a solar power installation that accepts capital from and provides credit for the output and tax benefits to individual and other investors,” according to Wikipedia. “The power output of the farm is credited to the investors in proportion to their investment, with adjustments to reflect ongoing changes in capacity, technology, costs and electricity rates. Companies, cooperatives, governments or nonprofits operate the farms.”
The advantages of establishing a community scale for renewable generation systems include: lower upfront costs due to economy of scale; availability of optimal solar-access sites; education and community building; support of local businesses and jobs; and opportunities for people who don’t own homes or have solar access to own renewable energy installations.
Renewable energy development is heavily affected by federal and state tax incentives. In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a good state tax incentive of 35 percent on top of the 30-percent federal renewable-energy tax incentive.
Asheville’s first community solar project is on the roof of the First Congregational United Church of Christ. The Earth Team at the downtown church initiated it with help from Richard Fireman, the outreach coordinator for North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light (a program of the N.C. Council of Churches). Fireman also works with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy in Western North Carolina. Sundance Power Systems installed the 42-panel, 10-kilowatt system, which was financed for the most part by church members, who formed a limited liability company called First Church Solar. Stan Corwin and Ron Martin-Adkins manage First Church Solar, which Corwin points out is appropriately named, as it’s the first community solar system on a church in the state.
The investors in the company own the system and benefit from the tax credits, depreciation and revenue from selling the electricity and renewable energy credits. The expectation is that after about six years, the investors will have made their money back and then some, depending on each individual’s tax situation. At that point, they will donate the system to the church.
Corwin says that the process went smoothly and that the congregants appreciate knowing that their solar system produces clean energy and reduces the amount of coal-fired power being used. Fireman reports that there were more interested people than could be accommodated by the installed system, since available space was limited on the church roof.
“In six years, once the church owns the system and depending on the price of electricity and other elements in the marketplace, the church may decide to net-meter and use the electricity itself,” Fireman says. To date, the system has been producing more energy than estimates predicted.
At the dedication of the system, the Rev. Joe Hoffman said, “We know that human life on Earth, especially in the United States, has not been kind to Earth. We confess that we have used more than our share of Earth’s resources and seek to live more in harmony with Earth’s ways and with respect for all Earth’s creatures and life systems.”
The Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy is talking with the city of Asheville about the possibility of installing other community solar projects on city-owned roof sites with good solar access. One of the main considerations is that any roof selected for a project of this nature must have a stable ownership over the 25-year expected lifespan of the project and be in good enough condition to not have to be replaced during the 25- to 30-year life of the system. Churches, schools and government buildings are often good prospects in this regard. The institute has the expertise to help replicate this model throughout the region and provides counseling to prospective investors as they examine the probable return on their investments, according to their personal financial situations. AIRE provides feasibility studies of the sites, and for a fee based on the size of the system, will also handle the required legal paperwork.
Now that First Church Solar has shown that community solar projects are feasible and can perform as modeled or better, the prospect of seeing more community solar projects in our area seems good. Our contribution to climate change needs to be addressed in as many ways as possible, and this promising new program for accelerating renewable energy production is one of them.
For a great slide show of the First Church Solar project, visit aire-nc.org. For more info about AIRE, contact Richard Fireman at .
Boone Guyton is a partner with Claudia Cady in Cady and Guyton Construction. He is a longtime member and co-founder of the WNC Green Building Council.