Published on October 6th, 2015 | by Guest Contributor

History Of Energy Gardens

Before I begin writing about energy gardens, it is incredibly helpful to understand what they are, what they aren’t, and their level of independence from whatever energy utility serves the vicinity.

The concept of distributed energy

According to the US Department of Energy, “distributed energy consists of a range of smaller-scale and modular devices designed to provide electricity, and sometimes also thermal energy, in locations close to consumers.” A solar garden fits in this category.

They include, adds the DOE, fossil and renewable energy technologies (e.g., photovoltaic arrays, wind turbines, microturbines, reciprocating engines, fuel cells, combustion turbines, and steam turbines); energy storage devices (e.g., batteries and flywheels); and combined heat and power systems. In other words, there are a lot of options when we talk of distributed energy.

“Distributed energy offers solutions to many of the nation’s most pressing energy and electric power problems,” writes the DOE, “including blackouts and brownouts, energy security concerns, power quality issues, tighter emissions standards, transmission bottlenecks, and the desire for greater control over energy costs.”

Add community solar farms or gardens to the growing list of these distributed energy competitors.  In the case of solar gardens, this distributed energy operation ” accepts capital from and provides output credit and tax benefits to individual and other investors.”

A new analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) predicts “solar gardens” could account for one-third to one-half of all solar PV power in the United States by 2020.

energy gardens communitysolar_fig1

Source: GTM Research

Wow! This is especially relevant to families unable to install their own solar, either because of budget or location, who want a part in the green energy revolution.

Solar gardens take off in 2010

The Colorado Legislature passed the Community Solar Gardens Act (CSGA) in 2010 with the intended purpose of spurring the development of community solar gardens (CSGs) in the territories of investor-owned utilities. In Colorado, the dominant utility is Xcel Energy.

The CSGA defines a CSG as a solar electric generation facility with a nameplate rating of two megawatts or less, and have at least 10 subscribers.

energy garden harvard HSG-drone-shot-the-big-picture_VN

The 550 kW Harvard Community Solar Garden is the first shareholder-owned solar garden in Massachusetts . Photos courtesy of Steven Strong, president of Solar Design Associates

In Massachusetts community Solarize campaigns began, the most active one at Harvard. The Solarize Program simplified the work while providing the advantage of a “bulk buy” to reduce system costs.

Steven Strong of Solar Design Associates provided technical guidance pro bono to this first shareholder-owned solar garden. The state provided a grant of over $150,000 for the launch.

Strong says that while the Harvard Solar Garden operates like a cooperative it is structured as an limited liability corporation, with the subscribers as the only shareholders. “I see the solar garden as the great democratization of electric power,” he says. “We need to push, nationwide, for that democratization, to allow everyone access to solar power.”

Then there is the utility side of this distributed energy concept.

In Michigan, electric customers of Consumers Energy are eligible to subscribe to the planned solar garden programs. The program offers a 25-year subscription plan with flexible payment options available.

Xcel Energy offers community solar options in Colorado and Minnesota. The idea of independent energy may seem compromised, however, because this is an enormous utility company. It does bring key assets to the table, though, such as an electricity distribution infrastrcture.

According to Green Tech Media, GTM Research identifies community solar as the next largest solar growth market in the United States. Over the next two years, community solar in the U.S. is poised to see its market share increase sevenfold, and by 2020 GTM Research expects US community solar to be a half-gigawatt annual market.

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