The Arcadia Source
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The Arcadia Source

A Path to 5 Million Community Solar Households by 2025

Learnings from the front lines of building the best clean energy product for consumers today

Clarksburg community solar farm — for which Arcadia manages the subscriptions — produces about 389,000 kWh of clean energy every year.

When most people think about solar, they think about rooftops. Seventy percent of Americans want cleaner energy, but a far smaller and more privileged percentage actually have a roof that can hold panels.

That’s why community solar is so important to advancing our clean energy — and social equity — goals. It allows solar projects to be built in more places than just customer rooftops, while still delivering cheaper, cleaner energy to anyone who pays a power bill. For the two-thirds of families who don’t own a home, don’t have a stellar credit score, or have a roof that simply faces the wrong direction for rooftop solar panels, community solar is a way to still get the benefits of solar power without a construction project on their roof.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) showed its commitment to this innovative business model in October, when it announced a goal of having the equivalent of 5 million households participating in community solar by 2025. That’s aiming for 700% growth in the next four years, with nearly 20 GW of fossil fuels replaced!

This is exactly the sort of ambition we need to tackle climate change and move to a clean energy future. I was thrilled by the announcement in October, and I’m excited to speak about how to meet DOE’s goal at this week’s National Community Solar Partnership Annual Summit.

Arcadia, the company I founded and run today, is the largest manager of community solar projects in the country. We have helped tens of thousands of customers subscribe to community solar projects across 10 states. In exchange for directly supporting a new solar project in their area, these customers earn credits on their utility bills as their project generates electricity, so they’re guaranteed to save money every month. It’s the single best energy product for customers today — guaranteed, risk-free savings from local, resilient, clean energy sources.

We operate in every leading community solar market across the country, and we’ve introduced community solar to three new states in just the last year. I want to share what I’ve learned from the front lines of community solar and, more importantly, what DOE can take away from my experience to help meet its 5 million household goal.

First and foremost, the community solar market is limited by historic energy market policy that limits competition on the grid. Each state creates rules on who can interconnect a project and whether they can provide savings to customers. If we can get rid of these limits, solar developers can build more projects and provide solar savings. This is where DOE needs to focus its efforts.

Community solar is still an emerging market, and opponents question whether meaningful constraints from investors (will banks lend money to build projects?) or interest from customers (will people sign up for a new product?) could limit the market. I can tell you with confidence and experience that the industry has overcome these constraints. What we’ve seen across the country proves that the only limit on this market comes from state policy. Consider New York, where the state has used up its budget for financial incentives for projects ahead of schedule, and is now figuring out how to accommodate significant growth in the market. New Jersey just ratcheted up the size of its program to exceed 1 GW (200,000 homes) in five years, and further south, Maryland just expanded its community solar program. In the West, Colorado consistently reaches its program’s annual limit every year.

Again and again, the lesson is that customers want to join community solar projects, and solar developers want to build them. We just need states to act and raise the ceiling on how big this market can be.

While these are ultimately state decisions, the federal government has a key role to play, too. To start, Congress should pass the Community Solar Consumer Choice Act, led by Senator Ben Ray Luján (New Mexico) and Representative Kathy Castor (Florida). This bill would require every state to consider enabling community solar if they haven’t already done so. “Consider” is the key word here. States are free to decide what community solar should look like for them, or if they even want it. But it would force every state to have a conversation and give the industry and our allies the opportunity to tell our story.

Simultaneously, the Biden Administration can take concrete steps to improve the state policy landscape.

First, the Administration needs to work to win the “hearts and minds” of policymakers and energy decision makers across the country. This is where the rubber hits the road for DOE’s 5 million household goal.

DOE can start by educating stakeholders on why community solar matters. A bipartisan message is key here. My experience shows that leaders across both sides of the political aisle in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan are hungry for ways to support technology innovation, economic development, and customer choice in where their energy comes from. Community solar can meet those goals — all without new mandates.

Finally, DOE can tap into the incredible brain power it has at its fingertips. The department has a network of world-class technical experts working at national laboratories. It can make these folks available to any state that wants to start a community solar program, or improve an existing one. The National Community Solar Partnership is a good start, and I want to see DOE keep it up.

At Arcadia, our mission is to stop climate change by breaking the fossil fuel monopoly that decides what energy we use. We’re making that change right now by growing the community solar market, and getting 5 million households onto community solar projects will be a tremendous step forward. I’m looking forward to working with the Biden Administration over the next three years to make our shared dream a reality.

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Technologists, data scientists, and energy nerds working towards a single mission: stop climate change by breaking the fossil fuel monopoly.

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Kiran Bhatraju

Kiran Bhatraju

Founder & CEO of Arcadia, the technology company empowering energy innovators and consumers to fight the climate crisis.

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