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Buzz Continues to Build Around Community Solar Power

Kacie Peters, senior director of communications at Pivot Energy, explains the momentum community solar is enjoying and some of the headwinds the sector is facing.

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Kacie Peters

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When many people think of solar power, they think of rooftop solar panels or massive, utility-scale solar farms. But there are more options. Kacie Peters from Pivot Energy joins the show to explain the basics of community solar. Peters highlights the momentum this segment of the renewables industry is enjoying — and some of the challenges it is facing. Peters also details how more consumers and business owners can access community solar to power their homes and/or operations.


What is community solar? – (1:48)
Community Solar vs. Residential Solar vs. Utility Solar – (3:05)
Cost benefits of community solar – (5:26)
Increasing awareness about community solar – (6:42)
Typical companies that tap community solar – (10:54)
Other types of customers – Nonprofits, Schools, etc. – (13:00)
How the Inflation Reduction Act is affecting community solar – (15:49)
The role of community solar in the net energy metering debate – (17:34)
Kacie’s bold predictions – (20:17)
Pushing back against misinformation and ‘Astroturfing’ – (22:50)


(Note: This transcript was created using artificial intelligence. It has not been edited verbatim.)

Sean McMahon  00:09

What’s up everyone, and welcome to the Renewable Energy SmartPod. I’m your host Sean McMahon. And today we’re gonna shine some sunlight on a segment of the solar industry sector that I don’t think most people are familiar with community solar. In a minute, I’m going to be joined by Kacie Peters. Kacie is the Senior Director of Communications at Pivot Energy. And she’s going to walk us through the basics of community solar, and why it is quickly becoming a popular option for consumers and organizations are looking to save money while leveraging the green power of solar energy. But before we hear from Kacie, just a quick reminder to give a listen to some recent episodes of this show, our most recent episode featuring Jill Blitzstein from American Airlines was full of great insights about how global companies like American are taking a multi pronged approach to enhancing their sustainability. Looking ahead, on our next episode, we’ll be joined by Jasmine Robinson from IHI terrassen. Developing a strong and diverse workforce is a key priority for the renewables industry. So Jasmine is going to highlight the important role STEM programs and other initiatives can play in attracting more women to the renewable sector. Jasmine’s own journey into this industry is fascinating. So I think you’ll enjoy hearing her share her story. So there’s lots of great episodes coming up. But for now, let’s talk community solar with Kacie Peters from Pivot Energy.

Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining me today. My guest is Kacie Peters from Pivot Energy. Kacie, how you doing today?

Kacie Peters  01:46

It’s going great. Thanks for having me.

Sean McMahon  01:48

Yeah, I’m excited to have you on. We’re gonna be talking a lot about community solar. So let’s just start with the basics. What is community solar?

Kacie Peters  01:55

Yeah, community solar, in my opinion, is the best product advancement in the solar industry since the PPA. Basically, rather than putting solar on individual rooftops, we put us slightly larger solar projects, not the utility scale size, but maybe a five to 10 megawatt size project out in a field or on a rooftop. And rather than this energy going into any one direct user, different people get to subscribe to that community solar project. Sometimes they’re called solar gardens, sometimes they’re called solar farms, I might interchange those titles. But what’s really neat is, rather than signing a long term contract, like you would for a PPA, you pretty much get to come and go as you please, if you’re a residential or small commercial client, for larger folks, we kind of keep them around for for that 20 Year 25 year commitment. But because of that flexibility, and because we’re not putting it on any one individuals homes, we can offer solar to so many more people and provide economic and environmental benefits across the board. It’s awesome.

Sean McMahon  03:05

All right. Yeah. I mean, I think it’s fascinating, because it seems to me that a lot of folks, when they think of solar, they think of one of two things, right? They think of either residential solar with individual homeowners, you know, slapping their panels up on their roof. Or they might think of utility scale solar, because maybe they’re driven by a big old solar farm out somewhere. So it seems like community solar kind of fits right in the middle of those two things. So I want to hear more about these programs. What are the benefits of arrangements like community solar?

Kacie Peters  03:30

Yeah, I think the first piece, the Coalition for Community Solar Access, or CCSA, has started calling it solar energy democratized because it’s accessible to all. There are a lot of studies out there that say, at least 50%, some, as many as 70% of Americans can’t access rooftop solar, because they don’t own their building, because the roof is shaded because there’s just not enough space, ton of reasons. But community solar allows them to participate in clean energy, by just subscribing. So that’s amazing. It also is accessible to low to moderate income families, which traditionally are cut out of solar all together. Because rooftop solar requires credit checks, requires homeownership requires a lot of different things. So that accessibility, I’d say is the biggest benefit of community solar, but a few other pieces, one that it’s scalable, and it’s scalable on the distribution grid. So doing a bunch of you know, my background was in residential solar back in 2010. And then I did some commercial, solar small to medium sized commercial solar. And a lot of those projects take a lot of work to get done with this. It’s just like developing a large commercial project, but you get to have so many other participants. And then I’d say the third biggest benefit is just the economic benefits it brings to local communities. So especially with the IRA, or the inflation Reduction Act, we’re seeing the promotion of putting solar in communities that have been left behind from oil and gas and coal. And we can build these projects because they’re on the distribution level, we can build these projects in communities, and in parts of the grid where it’s most needed. So accessible, scalable, and economic benefits.

Sean McMahon  05:26

I gotcha. So what are some of the cost benefits? You know, if I’m someone who’s considering subscribing to a program like this? How does the pricing compared to what I might get from some other sources of energy?

Kacie Peters  05:36

Yeah, well, it is, typically, and so I’m going to speak in generalities here, because every market is different. But on average, it is absolutely free to subscribe to community solar. So you’re not paying an upfront cost like you would for a rooftop system. You know, it’s similar to when you’re financing solar. But what’s even more interesting is, most products for community solar these days are guaranteed savings products. So what we do is rather than say, you’ve got a power purchase agreement that might start at, you know, eight cents and escalate over time. In this case, we say, whatever the build credit is, you get a discount to that. And those discounts. Really, on average, it’s been about 10%. But for low to moderate income or income qualified households, we see those up 20% up into 100%, donated credits. In fact, Pivot Energy has 41 megawatts of community solar getting developed in Colorado right now. That’s going to be 100%. Donated credits. So free and saving money for for everyone.

Sean McMahon  06:42

Okay, now, I want to pivot, no pun intended, I want to pivot to what some of the challenges might be for community solar. From my perspective, it seems like awareness might be a challenge. What kind of solutions are out there for educating consumers about these programs, so they can try to access them?

Kacie Peters  06:57

Yeah, as you can tell, I’m pretty excited about community solar. And I sometimes, you know, I’ll go to a doctor’s appointment, and I’ll, you know, be getting my weight checked. And I’ll turn to the nursing assistant and say, Hey, do you know what I do for a living? It’s community solar, and it sounds like a scam? But it’s not? Um, I’d say, I think that’s a big issue. We’ve seen a lot of play from retail energy providers in the past who’ve been bad actors. So when consumers are faced with choosing a an energy provider, that can be a little bit skeptical, or they can say, how is this different than what I’ve been offered in the past? Even other solar products? They’re, you know, confusing the two, how is this different than a rooftop solar installation, or PPA, and so a, it just sounds too good to be true. And then you have to get consumers to fill out a ton of paperwork, I am completely supportive of consumer protection. I just know that in some cases, some states have had arduous processes, there was one state that had an eight page disclosure agreement that a customer was supposed to sign. And when you start seeing the contract from the provider, plus eight pages of what could go wrong, that can be a little nerve racking. So I think getting a balance between what consumers should be protected from and how much they need to know, is really something that developers and regulators can work on together. But that education piece can also be pushed by the utility. I mean, I think if the utilities come out and say, Hey, we’ve got this program, it sounds more legitimate than someone coming and knocking door to door. And right now, most solar community solar is done through a really high touch process. We’ve got, you know, people out in the field, knocking on doors, saying, Have you heard about community solar, and that’s already an uncomfortable situation. So pivot has been really focused on how we can make community solar more like E commerce, we have a platform called Sun Central, in which we enroll and manage subscribers. And we do a lot of that education, because we know that we need community solar to scale. And part of that is having an easy way for customers to experience the entire, you know, sign up through Bill crediting through paying an invoice. And then I say another, just big challenges. I say, interconnection, if you are listening to this, and you have done anything in solar, in the past, you know, two years, you know that interconnection is a challenge, where it’s not quite as bad as the utility scale space. But it is a big challenge. As we are looking to scale the inflation Reduction Act is going to really supercharge the community solar market. And we need to know we can interconnect quickly and affordably to continue to give these residents and businesses that discounts that that we say we can. And then finally I would just say one last bit is that there’s really no uniform community solar policy. Every state has a different part. Government, every state has different rules. And that’s totally normal. Working in the industry now for about 13 years, I’ve seen different states go well, and states go not so great. And it’s the same in community solar. But what has been heartening to me is, as new states open up for community solar, so we have 20 states with legislation, as new states come on board, they sort of tried to one up the last state that was successful. So they say, I like what New York did, and I like what Illinois did. So I’m gonna do a hybrid of those two things. And that’s really great. But the complexity makes it hard to say, I’m gonna have this standard offered across all of my projects. My Portfolio.

Sean McMahon  10:42

Yeah, I mean, in terms of headwinds, I gotta say that an offering it sounds too good to be true. But isn’t. I mean, that’s a nice problem to have.

Kacie Peters  10:50

Seriously. Yes. It’s, it’s crazy.

Sean McMahon  10:54

So tell me more about your typical customers. You know, first, from the corporate side, what kind of companies are tapping into community solar?

Kacie Peters  11:01

Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of everyone. We’re seeing a lot of major corporates think about how to do solar in a way that’s the most impactful. So by participating as an anchor in these projects. Um, so when we talk about an anchor, we say, Hey, if you take a large portion of the solar subscriptions, and leave the rest for residential, if a large corporate were able to take on that big piece and, and stay in the project for 20 years, it makes it much easier to finance the rest of the project, because you know, that you’ve got at least 40% of this system is taken on by one of those large corporates, but we’re also seeing different players sort of localized as well. So we did some private we did some community solar with Breckenridge Grand Vacations. In that case, they’re really concerned about, you know, protecting our winters and making sure that with climate change, they still have business year after year, with no snow, there’s no skiing, there’s no Breckenridge. And so their ability to participate in these projects, really helps them say, Yeah, we we want to make sure that we’re protecting and we’re, we’re doing something beneficial for for our community as well.

Sean McMahon  12:17

Yeah, I could certainly see how a group like Breckenridge, you know, a ski area would have extra motivation, not just financial, but extra existential motivation, if you will, to see programs like this take off.

Kacie Peters  12:28

Yeah, yeah, we’ve had real estate developers. We’ve had retailers, we’ve had a ton of just diverse people coming to us or diverse corporates, larger businesses, saying, hey, we want to make community solar happen, because we know it aligns with our ESG goals. So we’re not only impacting, you know, our solar procurement, but we’re also doing something for a for the local community in which we operate. Again, that’s why the local benefits of community solar are so great.

Sean McMahon  13:00

What about other types of customers? I mean, I know we’ve talked about multifamily and residential. What about things like, you know, maybe nonprofits or the education sector?

Kacie Peters  13:08

Yeah, we did a really cool subscription with the Pueblo Zoo. This is just some stuff in Colorado, but love having the zoo part of community solar. And then what’s really also neat is that with all of our projects, we obviously will provide subscriptions to folks like school districts and such. But we try to give back on every one of our projects. So either they’re participating in well, in most cases, they’re participating in the program itself, the project, but there are other things like we did a partnership with the Community College of Aurora, which is a county out here in Colorado, not to necessarily just give them a subscription, but to invest in workforce development. So not only in Colorado, but across the country. As we do projects. We’re investing in those communities. So we come and we say, hey, what do you need? Do we need educational scholarships? Do we need energy bill assistance? In New York, we gave a donation to a group called the pride of Ticonderoga, which does energy assistance for low income families. And what’s really neat there is we’re able to sort of help reduce the energy burden for those households, and then ultimately, eventually, have those folks subscribe to our projects. So it’s really neat to have those partnerships with nonprofits, and to be able to give back to communities to create that additional economic development for everyone.

Sean McMahon  14:41

You mentioned a little bit about workforce development, which is obviously a huge topic right now and renewables. So tell me a little bit more about how that program is structured.

Kacie Peters  14:48

So we use partners for our workforce development. So again, folks like the Community College of Aurora, we’re able to give money to to them to be able to train mean, the folks directly. So we’re making partnerships across the country with different localized groups, because it’s the people who are the boots on the ground, and getting to them and interacting with the communities, they want to be with someone that they trust. And so we want to work with the best partners. And we’re locating that in every market that we’re working in. And especially with the inflation Reduction Act, I mean, it’s just, it’s a no brainer to continue to do that. But we also do it because as a company, we are a certified Benefit Corporation or certified B. And it just means that we have a triple bottom line of people planet and profit, which incentivizes us to continue to do things like workforce development, things like investing in communities, even outside of the inflation Reduction Act.

Sean McMahon  15:49

Yeah. So let’s dive a little bit deeper into the inflation Reduction Act. What other momentum are you seeing for the passage of that bill, as it affects community solar,

Kacie Peters  15:57

how everyone is so excited about the inflation Reduction Act, we’re going to really see a ton of of solar get built. I think the first and foremost, the runway that it gives us with the investment tax credit, gives us that assurance that we can develop projects that might take a little bit longer. I know for the past five years now, it’s been a Will they won’t they extend the ITC and get it in now before the end of the year, because the credits going away. But now having that assurance is allowing us to take more risks in different states. And then having focused on community solar, the benefits to low low income subscribers or income qualified subscribers. It’s allowing and encouraging not just us as Pivot Energy, but our competitors and compatriots, to be able to find more creative products to be able to service those households. And I’d say finally, we’re gonna see a geographic change in how solar is is developed across the country. Right now, you’ll still see a big coastal blue state development, but with a federal energy policy, which is what the IRA ultimately is, having those incentives across the board can make projects penciled in different markets, and can be the carrot to be able to open up markets, like Ohio or Pennsylvania markets that for years have had legislation or debates about community solar, now it’s time to pull the trigger. Let’s get that federal money going. And we’re really bullish on that.

Sean McMahon  17:34

One thing I’m keen to get your perspective on is, what role does community solar play in discussions about net energy metering? You know, I follow that debate pretty closely in places like California and Florida. Broadly speaking, it seems like there’s two sides to the argument, residential customers and utilities. As mentioned at the top of the show, it seems like community solar kind of lives right in the middle of those two. So where do you think community solar fits into that conversation?

Kacie Peters  17:59

Yeah, I think it’s another tool in the toolbox. Right. So I think one of the reasons that California change their net metering was because they wanted to incentivize planning for solar deployment, right. So how do we defeat the duck curve? And all of those issues that you’ve heard about in California, community, solar allows those slightly bigger projects without going into utility scale, and now allows folks to, to be able to benefit from solar without being on their roof? So I don’t think it’s I don’t think it was meant to replace, you know, the traditional residential solar market. But I do think that it will soften the blow of how many people can you know, we’re now out of the market for community for for rooftop solar, because the economics didn’t work for them. California is an interesting case, because California for a long time, I believe in 2015, they signed community solar legislation and rolled out a program, but it was a really poorly designed program and created a premium product. So you weren’t saving from solar, you’re paying more to participate in community solar. So they finally are reevaluating that, now that they have reevaluated net metering. They pass new legislation for community solar, and we’re in the regulatory discussions as to what that’s going to look like. And I think that the net metering debate and new rules will probably factor into what the new community solar program looks like, and how we can make sure that all Californians have access to to a solar product that makes sense for them. Florida is kind of interesting, because you’ll hear some people say that Florida has the biggest market for community solar, but that’s because it’s the utility on solar. And, you know, those of us in the development space. Don’t consider that what is true community solar. We think that community solar is on the distribution side of of the grid, and that it can compete with utility utilities, when they get to run their own programs have specific competitive advantages that can undercut what a traditional developer could do. And that ultimately could stymie new product development that we’re doing all the time.

Sean McMahon  20:17

Okay, one of the things I’d like to do on this show, Kacie, is I like to ask guests for their bold predictions. So when it comes to community solar, where do you think things will be in say, three to five years?

Kacie Peters  20:28

You know, I know that the CCSA has said something like 30 gigawatts by 2030, which is a huge number. Compared to what we have today. I forget the number where we’re at right now. But I think it’s a, you know, a couple of gigawatts. So we we’d be growing significantly. And so but what I really think for the next few years, and community solar is you’re going to see a lot of companies going all in on LMI, and equity, I’d say a couple years ago in solar, and community solar, it was almost impossible to define Anse projects with 100% residential with no credit checks, the kind of projects that would even allow low to moderate income families to access community solar, or to allow income qualified households to access community solar. But we’ve really innovated on financing in the past, you know, really three years to start saying, Hey, we don’t need credit checks. So now we can start from community solar, that was mostly just businesses and underwritten very much like a PPA to residential, but we have to have credit checks to no credit checks now. And I think with the inflation reduction X, benefits for LMI, we’re gonna see a lot more people getting into income qualified and supporting those, those households and new products for them. So I think that’s going to be a big factor. I also think that community solar signup is going to be a lot more like E commerce. Again, we’re working on that here, with our Sun central product, trying to figure out what smart partnerships we can get to be able to enroll customers with a trusted brand, maybe partner with some corporates to say, hey, let’s just sign you up since you already use our products. So that’s, that’s really exciting. Let’s make that barrier to entry really low. And then finally, I think seeing community solar to spread into just different states, I’d love to see, you know, the traditional red states, just understand that this opportunity is there for them is there for their landowners is there for their communities and be able to, to benefit. So I want to see, like 35 states with community solar in like three years. That’d be my bold prediction.

Sean McMahon  22:50

Okay, well, I’m gonna hold you to that. I want to get back to any challenges that community solar might be facing. I mean, we’ve talked about a lot of them. But is there anything else out there that we might have missed?

Kacie Peters  22:59

Yeah, I think one of the things that is now coming up across the industry, not just for community solar, but we’re seeing this in utility scale solar most heavily. We saw it originally in wind, but a lot of what we call astroturfing, which means that dark money groups are planting people to spread messages of disinformation. So you’ll see these community Facebook groups come up saying solar panels are toxic, or solar panels cause cancer. And those are obviously untrue statements, but you’re getting this emotional response. And so it started with the wind turbines. Everyone said, Oh, they’re driving me crazy. And then it was the large solar installations, oh, I don’t want those in my in my area. So here’s a ton of reasons. For now. We’re seeing them even on our projects. And our projects are, you know, less than 30 acres. So we’re seeing them on smaller and smaller projects. And we’re seeing that this is coming from a concerted effort from dark money. And it’s hard to combat that. But I think we need to be more proactive. Part of my reelection to the Colorado solar and storage associations board was a commitment to coming up with a campaign to combat disinformation and misinformation. And part of it is educating the decision makers in permit hearings. So your county commissioners, your planning board and all that. But even if you tell them, Yes, they understand everything. They understand that solar panels aren’t toxic. They understand that this is not going to destroy habitat. They understand all those positive things that are the truth. Once they get into a permit hearing, and there are people crying and screaming, and just really upset and viscerally angry. It’s kind of hard and to be able to stand up in the face of that. And I think it’s the canary in the coal mine right now. And I think it’s going to get worse because the inflation Reduction Act is going to be promoting solar in areas that just haven’t had had it before and promoting a whole lot more solar in areas that have had it. So I get concerned about that. I know sia has been thinking about how to combat that disinformation as well. And I’m hoping that as an industry, we can all come together to spread more positive messages about solar. I think solar speaks for itself, right. It’s everything I said, it’s saving money saving the planet, it’s investing in communities. So why do we have to say anything else? It speaks for itself? Well, you know, not everyone knows all those things. And it only takes a few, you know, rotten apples to spoil the bunch. So let’s make sure that we’re always promoting the benefits of solar and standing up to folks who are trying to spread those disinformation and lies.

Sean McMahon  25:45

Yeah, I mean, that’s, that’s certainly troubling. You know, particularly when it comes to things like aggravated tax. You know, I mean, there’s a lot of farmers out there who are embracing solar, because they can keep having livestock right there sheep and cows. Right underneath the panels, we have sheep. And Cornell even put out a study that found that setups like that actually lengthens the life of the panels. So everybody wins. The cows and the sheep are happy. The farmer gets another reliable source of income. And the solar panels themselves lasts a little bit longer.

Kacie Peters  26:14

That’s fantastic.

Sean McMahon  26:16

Well, hey, Kacie, listen, I really appreciate your insights on this. I feel like I got a lot smarter about community solar myself. This has been a great conversation. So thank you very much.

Kacie Peters  26:24

Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed chatting, John. Thanks.

Sean McMahon  26:30

All right, everyone. Well, that’s our show for today. Thank you all for listening. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe or follow this show on Apple, Spotify, Google, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And as always, please be sure to share it with your friends and colleagues. Have a great day.