Even amid the strong growth of the U.S. solar market, community solar, where customers sign up for shares in remote utility-scale solar projects, stands out as an area of particularly rapid expansion.
In June GTM Research estimated that the U.S. community solar market would grow five-fold this year to reach 115 MW, and would grow to over 500 MW annually by 2020.
An announcement today by Massachusetts-based Next Step Living is in line with these trends. The company reports that it has reached nearly 11,000 reservations for community solar gardens, with more than 1,500 contracts for gardens expected to go live in late November in Western Massachusetts.
Next Step Living says that at these rates, Massachusetts residents are signing up for around 2 MW of solar PV per month.
In Massachusetts, community solar arrangements are supported through virtual net metering. Under this policy a utility customer can receive the bill credit benefits of net metering for a solar installation even if it is not located on the site where they consume the electricity.
As such, Next Step Living is building some of its PV projects in sparsely populated Western Massachusetts, and signing contracts with subscribers in National Grid and Eversource service territories which stretch across the state and include the Boston metro area.
On Tuesday, John Farrell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported that 16 U.S. states now have some form of virtual net metering policy, up from only nine early 2014.
I think it is the recognition by legislatures, that making sure that solar can be available to everyone is an important principle, Farrell told pv magazine. We're also seeing utilities recognizing that community solar program may be a way to engage with their customers.
Farrell notes that not all states are seeing the success with these programs that Massachusetts is. Farrell estimates that in his state of Minnesota only 40 kW of community solar has come online, 27 months after enabling rules were implemented.
Farrell says that utility Xcel Energy is the main obstacle, arguing that they have not put in the necessary resources to process 300-400 MW of applications, and are also using tactics to delay community solar through the regulatory process.
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