Alex Tiller: Solar Gardens Aim to Offer PV for All

An editorial by Sunetric CEO Alex Tiller was featured in the Sunday edition of the Honolulu Star Advertiser. Subscribers may read the piece in Sunday’s paper or online; we have reprinted the editorial in full below.

With Hawaii’s target of 70 percent clean energy by 2030, our state has set forth one of the most aggressive energy standards in the nation. As recent reports of Hawaii ranking third in solar energy generation on a per capita basis and doubling its solar power capacity every year since 2005 suggest, we are making significant progress toward our goal. Because of high electricity expenses and yearround sunshine, Hawaii consistently places among the top 10 states in renewable energy production. Our state, however, is not No. 1 in solar adoption no matter the measurement or study used.

Considering all the reasons why Hawaii should top the charts in solar brings us to question our current efforts. We have ambitious energy goals, but are we thinking outside the box enough to achieve them? Are we breaking down the barriers to solar adoption instead of building them up? Are we doing everything we can to lead the nation in solar?

One innovative idea, an increasingly common concept on the mainland rarely discussed in the islands, but one worth pursuing, is the community solar garden. An alternative to the homeowner’s roof-mounted photovoltaic system, the solar garden allows members of a community to own or lease solar panels at an offsite facility and earn electricity bill credits for the power generated by their panels. Depending upon how many panels members invest in, as well as state regulations, members can significantly reduce or even eliminate their electricity bill.

This approach makes solar accessible to everyone, not just the 15 percent that own a home suitable for solar nationally. Owners of houses not conducive to solar due to limited roof space, shade, utility grid interconnection issues and other obstacles could reap the benefits of solar from a community solar garden.

Renters, who until recently have been completely left out of the picture, could own panels and offset their electricity costs as they moved from one home to the next. Organizations facing the same challenges as residential owners and renters could finally reduce their overhead.

Especially thought-provoking, membership to a centralized community solar garden could be passed down between generations, reducing the physical limitations of solar ownership and perpetuating the benefits of solar for our children’s children as solar energy would no longer be tied down to a particular residence.

Supported by state legislation, various models of the community solar garden concept have been implemented throughout the nation, including Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington. Colorado passed the Community Solar Garden Act in 2010, allowing for the development of numerous community solar gardens. Yet, Hawaii shelved the idea in February 2013, deferring a community-based renewable energy program, described in House Bill 1363, for further study.

Currently, Sunetric is working on a partnership that could lead to more than 10 megawatts of community solar gardens serving renters, businesses and municipalities in Colorado, and we are evaluating several financing models to bring the concept to Hawaii.

Hawaii is a pioneer of renewable energy, known for harnessing its many local resources and pushing the boundaries in energy production. Let’s continue to expand our alternative energy options, think beyond the conventional, and support smart accessible energy solutions like the community solar garden.