Solar Market Sweet Spot

Is community-scale solar the solution for small utilities?


Community-scale solar appears to be finding its stride. Not only do these innovative photovoltaic systems enable multiple customers to participate in a single solar project and to receive compensation for their portion of the power produced, but they also offer a number of economic, grid, and environmental benefits. A new study published by the Rocky Mountain Institute has recently found that community-scale solar (CSS) is particularly well-suited for smaller utility systems.

CSS has recently become the fastest growing solar market segment. According to the SEIA, there are currently 26 states with at least one community solar project on-line, with 101 projects and 108 cumulative megawatts installed in 2017. The organization predicts that in the next several years, the US community solar market will add as much as 3 gigawatts, compared to just 66 MW through the end of 2014.

The Rocky Mountain Institute identifies CSS as an important middle market segment between large utility-scale solar photovoltaics and smaller behind-the-meter systems. Furthermore, the organization indicates that CSS may find an economic sweet spot in the market since the average project size (between 0.5 MW and 5 MW) makes these installations large enough to access low costs through economies of scale yet small enough to efficiently interconnect into distribution systems.

In a number of cases reviewed in the RMI study, researchers found that CSS was more cost-effective than purchasing energy from central power plants. The data indicates that, for smaller utilities, CSS offers low rates and reliable power, while providing clean, local energy.

“Levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for these systems has declined 40% in two years and is now at or below $50/MWh in several parts of the US. As a result, CSS is more cost-effective than purchasing energy from central power plants for many electric distribution utilities,” the report explains.

What are your impressions? Do you think that CSS is the solution to a more resilient distributed energy future? DE_bug_web

  • Mark Nelson.

    Assuming that the 0.5-5MW ground mount market is now at $50/MWH all in cost, why should non-participants be forced to bear the burden of subsidizing participants via virtual NEM (VNEM) from community solar – instead of – the small utilities simply signing the PPA and adding the clean energy to their portfolios? All in all, the same environmental benefits occur and non-participants aren’t forced to subsidize the VNEM participants. Of course fancy tariffs that charge for the use of the distribution grid for retail wheeling, the use of the grid as a battery, and for backup power can be developed, but why bother? Just add the small ground mount arrays to the small utility portfolios.

    • Jim Moroz.

      I am trying to follow your argument but am stuck on the term NEM. Please give me some reference where I can learn it.


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