The mission of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) includes supporting innovation in the solar market and expanding Portlanders’ access to the benefits and incentives available for solar electricity.
Solar Forward evolved from BPS’s participation in US Department of Energy’s Solar America Communities program from 2007-2013. A number of other cities in this network were experimenting with “community solar,” an emerging concept around shared ownership of commercial- or utility-scale PV projects.
What Do We Mean By “Community Solar?”
At BPS, staff has always considered community solar to be about expanding access to solar energy for the majority of residents who are not able to install solar on their own rooftops because they rent or have large shade trees or have a roof that’s not well oriented to the sun. Here’s how BPS defined its objectives with respect to community solar in 2012:
- Make solar energy generation more accessible to Portland citizens for whom direct ownership of solar on their own roofs is not feasible.
- Provide opportunity for funding of solar energy in affordable increments.
- Demonstrate a model for community-supported solar in Oregon under current legal and regulatory conditions.
- Providing some return of benefits (in a manner compliant with Securities and Exchange Commission regulations) to community members who contribute funding for system construction costs.
More recently, “community-shared solar” has emerged as a specific term with a specific meaning. The core underpinning of community-shared solar is a credit on the participant’s electric power bill that’s proportional to the energy production or capacity they’ve purchased in the system.
This understanding of community-shared solar is shared and promoted by a wide range of stakeholders and market participants, including US DOE, NREL, IREC, Vote Solar and others.
Solar Forward Tested Community Interest in Crowdfunding Solar on Public Buildings
Regulatory and legal conditions in Oregon prevented BPS from launching a true community-shared solar project in 2013, when Solar Forward began. Solar Forward represented the best opportunity at the time to test community interest in funding a visible, locally-based renewable energy system that could be viewed as a community asset. Crowdfunding was a hot topic in 2011 and 2012, so it made sense to test this method of raising capital for project construction, in combination with grant funds and utility incentives.
In this regard, Solar Forward was a community energy project, but it should not be confused with community-shared solar projects taking places in other cities and states. Participants in Solar Forward made charitable contributions to fund the systems and there was no return of benefit for their participation. The City was precluded from offering any kind of financial return —- even the lump-sum return of capital after 5 years — due to legal requirements.
Solar Forward resulted in 30 kilowatts of installed capacity on three important community buildings. However, consumer response to Solar Forward was not as strong as hoped. As a result, the pilot effort has concluded and Solar Forward is no longer soliciting charitable donations. BPS’s experience with Solar Forward has helped inform state policy discussions related to community-shared solar.