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Will Our Community Own Our Solar Power?

April 6, 2017

Solar Ownership

As community solar projects become increasingly popular around the country, there’s a question that any potential participants should be asking: will our community actually own our solar power?

The question of solar ownership is one that the Energy Clinic at Vermont Law School has been working on for years. All too often, projects sold as “community solar” involve selling the renewable energy credits (RECs) from the electricity generated, typically out of state. What this means is that the investors in the so-called “community solar” projects aren’t actually consuming solar energy. They’re essentially buying the standard mix off the electric grid. (Called the “residual mix,” if you’ll pardon an industry term.)

Besides the issue of consumer fairness (most people who invest in solar power want to actually get solar power!), this also makes for bad energy policy, as the renewable energy attributes from the local solar project are being credited to others. If, for instance, a Vermont community solar project sells its RECs to Massachusetts, then that solar array is supporting the renewable energy goals in the Bay State, and isn’t technically reducing Vermont’s carbon footprint at all.

The Energy Clinic at Vermont Law School has developed what we believe to be better, more fair and just, and economically sound business and legal models for community solar projects. It has long been our mission to expand these models to support low-income communities and help promote rural development in New England and beyond. Thanks to a recent cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a grant from the Jane’s Trust Foundation, the clinic is receiving a total of $195,000 to help expand our community solar work, and to advance low-income community solar support throughout New England.

The $70,000 grant from the Jane’s Trust Foundation will allow the clinic to hire a Climate Justice Fellow who will practice in the clinic while pursuing a Master of Laws (LLM) in Energy Law. The Climate Justice Fellow will work on low-income solar ownership, while also promoting efficient, sustainable, and affordable energy solutions to those New Englanders who are most vulnerable to energy poverty.

The USDA funds, which account for the other $125,000, will be used to take the clinic’s current community solar models—as exemplified in the pioneering project at Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland—and adapt their implementation to the various needs of communities throughout economically-distressed regions of rural New England.

Thanks to the USDA and Jane’s Trust Foundation, the Energy Clinic at Vermont Law School can continue our work to ensure that all New Englanders can not only be a part of a community solar project, but can also reap the benefits of ownership.