Central Electric Cooperative in Bend, Oregon, hit the streets in the fall of 2014 to solicit feedback on a community solar program. Members expressed interest and enthusiasm at the cooperative’s nine public meetings. That year’s member satisfaction survey results for community solar participation also were favorable.
By the end of 2018, CEC’s 200,000-watt project was built and its costs fully recovered.
The community solar concept is simple: A utility builds a facility that uses photovoltaic panels to generate electricity and invites members to participate in its costs and benefits. Participation is voluntary.
Utilities often invest in community solar projects in response to member requests and to satisfy legislative mandates to provide more environmentally friendly power.
“The CEC program, ultimately, proved successful because it allowed for greater access for participation,” says Brent ten Pas, director of member and public relations.
To appeal to the broader membership, CEC took a unique approach and offered members two ways to participate in the community solar project.
The Shared Solar program was designed for those seeking a direct connection between energy production and their energy use. For members who could not afford to put solar on their roofs, the program provided them an opportunity to subscribe to the output of a full, half, quarter or multiple solar panels. For their participation, they would see a credit on their bill equaling the energy their subscription produced the previous month.
Members could also participate in CEC’s Green Power program. These members opted to pay a premium—1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour—which went toward the community solar program and future renewable energy initiatives.
CEC’s Community Solar Project’s 700 panels are fully subscribed. The project is designed for future expansion, but there are no immediate plans to do so.
“While the project served the interests of those members willing to make an additional investment in renewable power, the demand to expand has not hit a tipping point,” ten Pas says.
The community solar project continues to generate interest throughout the community and the state. For example, students from Skyline High School in Bend recently toured the project to learn about the benefits of solar energy and how that energy is distributed to the local electric grid. Representatives from other small utilities have inquired about the project as they consider doing something similar.
Benton REA in West Richland, Washington, has found success in its smaller-scale community solar project, Co-op Solar. Benton REA has almost 11,000 members compared to CEC’s roughly 35,000.
In August 2018, Benton REA members were given the opportunity to buy 550 solar units at $200 per unit. The project sold out in eight days.
Co-op Solar went live January 2, 2019. In one year, the project produced 41,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity—enough to power two efficient, modern, all-electric, 2,000-square-foot homes for one year.
Although the system’s production was lower than hoped during its first year—January and February were cloudy and snowy—the sun came out in March and produced steadily through October.
July, the sunniest month of the year, produced 6,280 kWh.
Co-op Solar has a payback of just more than 14 years.
“With that said, most people did not participate for the money,” says Ron Mitchell, Benton REA energy adviser. “Our membership is very interested in technology and doing something good for our environment. As co-op members, they also have a sense of ownership and want to participate to do their part in the community to make it a better place for the future generations.”
Although plans for additional phases are far down the road, Mitchell says the co-op already has a waiting list of 60 members who would like to get into a second or third phase.
“For a second-phase community solar system, we would need the legislation to change adding new incentives or find additional funding sources to make it pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time,” he says.
Mitchell is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“We look forward to a future of working together with our members on new renewable energy projects to continue making our Benton REA electrical system efficient, reliable and safe for all,” he says. “The popularity has been fantastic.