Energy Law Wisconsin Blog

Community Solar: Finding the Model That’s Right for You

An example of a community solar project: Convergence Energy Solar Farm in  Walworth County, Wisconsin.

Required Formal Disclaimer: Since what follows involves some discussion of legal principles, there is at least a theoretical possibility that one of you out there may read this blog entry and conclude that: (a) you and I have entered into an attorney client relationship; or (b) I am offering you specific legal advice for your specific legal situation. In the unlikely event you reach either conclusion, I must inform you that sadly, it is not true. Persons accessing this site are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

 

I have attended a number of public presentations over the past several weeks about community solar. What I have taken away from these presentations: First, there is a high degree of interest in promoting community solar in Wisconsin. Second, the legal underpinnings of community solar are not well understood by the general population. This blog post is an attempt to shed a little light on this area.

The term “Community Solar” is not a universally understood term with the same meaning in every context. Rather, it is a general expression used with different meanings at different times, like the word “green” when referring to environmental and sustainability benefits. In my own usage, the term “Community Solar” has a broad and a narrow meaning:

Broad Definition: An effort by a group of people (or community) to promote the development of solar energy through a collective effort, frequently when some or all of the members of the group lack the ability or financial resources to own and operate a solar energy system on their own property.

Used in this sense, community solar can include utility and other green power programs and renewable energy credit (REC) aggregation efforts in which individuals make contributions, municipal utility “adopt a solar panel” programs, as well as all organizational structures and models for community investment in solar that are included in the narrower definition. It could even include “crowdfunding” to support a solar project. (ELW will address crowdfunding in an upcoming blog post.)

Narrow Definition: This narrower concept means a collective effort by a group of investors (this could include equity investors and/or lenders) to develop an entity or organization to own and operate a solar energy system and make a financial return on their investment. Examples of this would include all of the following, among others:

– A group of homeowners who can’t individually afford the entire up-front cost of a solar energy system or whose roofs are too shaded to permit effective production of solar power, pool their funds to purchase interests in a limited liability company that owns a solar energy system.

– A group of tenants within a building who wish to put solar on the roof get the rights to lease the roof of the building to install a solar energy system and create a co-op in which each of them is a member, getting the use of the solar power produced by the solar energy system and furnished to the building.

– A homeowner or business owner who has most of the funds necessary to purchase a solar energy system, but needs to borrow funds that it cannot get a loan for from the bank enters into a series of loan agreements with friends or investors, each of whom will lend a portion of the money necessary to get the system owner “over the top” in financing the system. In return, the system owner guarantees them a fixed interest repayment over the loan term.

Which Type of Community Solar is the Best? This is a question that is complex and requires careful consideration of all of the following before the project is commenced:

– The regulatory scheme of your state, and, if you are in a regulated utility market, what business models are permitted without being deemed to be acting as a regulated utility.

– The buyback rate (if any) and tariffs offered by the local utility who may be the power purchaser.

– Whether the primary use of the system will be to self-serve, act as an independent power producer (selling the electricity to a utility), or to serve other third parties.

– Whether the project can be set up to take advantage of federal tax incentives, including the Investment Tax Credit and accelerated depreciation.

– The rate of return that has to be offered to investors to get them to participate and whether the business structure necessary to secure such participation requires compliance with state and federal securities laws.

While answering these questions may seem daunting, the good news is that there are a growing number of people, the author of this blog included, who are devoting their time to developing community solar business models and the supporting documents to implement them. There is also a lot of room for creativity to meet the specific needs of individuals who wish to participate in community solar. Also, there are an increasing number of resources being developed by government agencies, utilities and others to assist people in finding the resources they need to develop community solar projects.

Written on June 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm, by Michael Allen