We are excited to share that the Ecology Law Quarterly has just published Equitable Community Solar: California & Beyond by Subin DeVar, the Law Center’s energy program director. The article builds on the Law Center’s community energy work over the last several years, including our advocacy related to implementation of California’s community solar policies, and our development of community-owned energy project models through incubating the People Power Solar Cooperative. Based on these lessons, it proposes a simple and useful framework for equitable community solar based on centering marginalized communities and community-owned energy.
"After one failed policy experiment—the Enhanced Community Renewables program (ECR), which has not resulted in a single operational project in three years [emphasis The Law Center] — California is embarking on a modest second attempt with the Community Solar Green Tariff (CSGT)."
Why did the first attempt at community solar in California fail so miserably? According to DeVar, justice and equity were not baked into visioning a zero emissions future. "Unpacking the root causes of climate change and inequity informs the framing of a more systemic, analytical, and evidence-based solution — what the Just Transition Framework refers to as a “regenerative economy.” (Page 1022.)
We learn that in order for community solar to be truly effective, equity for the most marginalized groups must be centered:
"Equitable community solar (1) allocates energy and benefits from one solar system to multiple customers, (2) intentionally focuses on benefitting marginalized communities, and (3) prioritizes local community governance and ownership." (Page 1020.)
DeVar highlights several shortcomings of California's ECR program: the lack of economic incentive provided for solar developers to build in environmental justice communities and the inability for low-income ratepayers to buy shares in community solar projects. These failings help DeVar formulate new measures for how equitable community solar projects should be improved and evaluated in the future. He determines that "ensuring project feasibility, benefiting marginalized communities, and prioritizing community governance" should be how policymakers ensure holistic economic, social, and environmental health. (Page 1031.)
Equitable Community Solar: California & Beyond also raises the importance of community ownership in community solar projects and policies by unpacking the meaning and terminology around community solar to change the narrative from one which has increasingly been co-opted by for-profit industries to one that centers community power. He offers this framework for understanding the many different models within the general concept of community solar:
Models Within Community Solar (Figure 1, Page 1026, credit: Subin DeVar)
DeVar characterizes the CSGT (Community Solar Green Tariff Program) — California's latest policy attempt — as a "cautious approach to testing out community solar" and is critical of the program's design. Policymakers must be more aggressive when developing and implementing policy mechanisms if California wants to continue to be a leader in the struggle to mitigate climate change.
He offers a few recommendations on how to improve the CSGT, using his definition of equitable community solar as a compass.
Pricing: The CSGT’s cap on auction bid prices for potential projects may limit the feasibility of project construction, particularly for smaller projects, nonprofits, or other projects that are not able to access the federal solar investment tax credit, or other projects that may uniquely benefit marginalized communities but be more costly to develop. If California adopted a VNEM (Virtual Net Energy Metering)-based community solar program, it would increase the potential funding for projects, both making project development more viable in general, as well as promoting the ability to advance community ownership and other benefits for marginalized communities.
Access: CSGT does a good job of targeting customers geographically based on pollution burden, but it does not offer participation or benefits for anyone outside of these zones. To expand benefits and better achieve the principles of equitable community solar, the CSGT could open up participation to low-income or low-wealth households or community-owned projects located anywhere in the service territories of the regulated utilities.
Incentives: Third, adders and incentives could be incorporated into the CSGT to allow the program to be more nuanced and balance cost minimization goals with policy goals of promoting certain kinds of projects and serving particular subgroups of customers.
Simplicity: Fourth, the CSGT has some strengths in terms of customer protection and program simplicity, particularly on the consumer side, but it has plenty of room for improvement on the side of the developer’s experience.
Size: Finally, a major issue overall with the CSGT is the maximum size of the program. The forty-one MW of solar generation capacity for the program is a mere 0.05 percent of the state’s total electrical generation capacity. Given that about 50 percent of households cannot access onsite solar generation, the program is utterly insignificant compared to the need.
"Residential solar and utility scale solar are low-hanging fruit in the renewables transition, but targeting low-hanging fruit can only go so far. Can states innovate, reach further, and ignite near-universal consumer demand for clean energy and achieve social justice goals through equitable community solar?" Through DeVar's thoughtful critique and analysis, we see that policy iteration and failure are inevitable steps on the path towards building equitable community solar programs, but that there is hope from lessons gleaned from our failures.