Moving Community Solar Forward Across the Granite State

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An important benefit of renewable energy is that the power, whether from wind, sun, wood or water, is “harvested” and harnessed as a local fuel by local talent to create local energy.  This is especially true for solar energy, and one New Hampshire group did the hard work to keep the money local, too. With 43.5 kilowatts of community shared solar capacity to be installed this week at the Monadnock Food Co-op, the Monadnock Sustainability Network is breaking new ground for clean energy in the Monadnock region and developing a model that will facilitate other community solar projects around the state.

Demand for solar is steadily increasing in New Hampshire and across New England as participants and local businesses recognize the financial, as well as environmental, benefits it provides. Unfortunately, though, some people who want to go solar still don’t have access to it.

They may not have enough sunlight on their property, they may not own their roof, or they may not have the money for panels. While leasing and Power Purchase Agreements are also options, community supported solar is an innovative way to increase access to solar power within a community while empowering local ownership and keeping the dollars from the project local. 

The Monadnock Sustainability Network (MSN), a group of business and community members who support sustainable practices through education, outreach, and collective action, developed one of only a handful of community supported solar project in New Hampshire. Their vision is to help make the Monadnock region in southwestern New Hampshire a recognized model and imitated example for sustainable living. This project at the food co-op is one way they are doing that. Formed in 2005, the group focuses on increased energy efficiency and reliance on renewable energy; greater self-sufficiency in food production; healthier citizens and conservation of the pristine natural and scenic resources in the Monadnock region. 

In 2015, after momentum was building around a community solar initiative in the area, MSN received a Grow Grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund to develop the legal structure for a community-supported solar project that could serve as a model to be used by others throughout the region. 

Julia Dundorf, Executive Director of the New England Grassroots Environment Fund shared their excitement about the emergence of community solar, “because it offers those who are not in a position to have solar panels on their own homes or businesses a way to get involved in solar, providing renewable energy and reducing carbon pollution.”

But being one of the first few groups to develop a Community Solar project in New Hampshire, the process was no easy feat. There are numerous hurdles that stand in the way given existing policies including net metering challenges, securities issues, and logistics around the development of a legal structure. 

Monadnock Sustainability Network hopes to pave the way for others to follow in their footsteps by creating a NH Community Supported Solar Guide that will serve as a comprehensive resource about what community shared solar is, the policy and funding landscape in NH, and template documents for developing a project in the state.

The MSN project is owned by Cypress Community Solar, LLC (CCS), the corporation formed to own the project and sell clean, solar electricity to the Co-op.  CCS, in turn, is owned by a group of local investors who expect to sell the PV system to the Co-op within ten years. The company and the Co-op have entered into a power-purchase agreement under which the Co-op will purchase all of the estimated 48,000 kWh of electricity produced by the project annually.

The group chose to work with Monadnock Food Co-op because of its local membership of more than 2000 and its high visibility, strong community support, and the desire of Co-op membership to have a PV system.  It’s also important to MSN that the Co-op actively engages the community on a regular basis, meaning the system will get widespread exposure. 

The solar power from the system represents more than 8 percent of the annual electrical needs of the Coop, according to John Kondos, a renewable-energy professional who is president of MSN.  Kondos says the installation this week is the culmination of a long process of learning and application of lessons, Kondos relates.

“When MSN started exploring community solar in late 2013, we couldn’t find any examples of community solar projects in New Hampshire.  So, with help from the Grassroots Fund’s grant, we undertook a joint study of community solar by a group of Antioch University New England (AUNE) students and MSN members,” he says.

“When the research findings were presented at a community meeting in April of 2014, the enthusiasm generated led to the formation of a project steering committee. This committed group began meeting to pursue a project dubbed the Monadnock Community Solar initiative (MCSi). After reviewing the options,” Kondos explains, “the steering committee decided it wanted to pursue the community-supported solar (CSS) model and create an LLC where local investors would own a PV system on a host site and sell the occupants electricity and eventually the PV system itself.”

The next job for MSN and the MCSi was to create a legal entity, the limited-liability corporation (LLC), and recruit local investors to fund the planning, development, construction and maintenance of a solar array.  Because this was a new concept in New Hampshire and rare elsewhere, significant time and expense were required to set up the requisite legal structure for the first time. The start up costs for legal expenses, fundraising and project development would add dramatically to the cost of this first CSS, and the group again was able to rely on Grassroots Fund money.

And through it all, MSN members were taking notes, preparing a guide that would help others who want to develop community solar.  The result is the NH Community Supported Solar (NHCSS) Guide, which is in final preparation for a web launch later this week.  In addition to helping others, Kondos says, the Guide will help MSN recoup some of its expenses and provide sustainable source of funds for group projects and “it might even allow us to hire some student interns to take care of basic staff tasks.

“We went through a lot to get this project done, and what we hope is that this will save other groups all that trouble as they develop their own community-supported solar initiatives,” he says.  The guide will be free to MSN members (a basic membership is $25 for Monadnock-region residents) and cost $50 for non-residents.  The guide also gives access to documents, legal and technical, that MSCi spent thousands of dollars to produce.

“We couldn’t even find a lawyer who could draft a power-purchase agreement, for instance,” Kondos says, “and we had to find someone with that special expertise.”  By the time the group had what it needed, the Guide contained “an extensive list of support and legal documents and other information we developed,” including: 
•    The LLC agreement; 
•    Tax equity and community funding agreements; 
•    Power Purchase Agreement (PPA); 
•    Engineering and Procurement Contract documents; 
•    Cash flow and return on investment spreadsheets; and
•    Community/investor presentations and other information.   

“It cost us more than $70,000 to have it all drawn up, and we’re making documents available for a couple hundred dollars each through the Guide,” Kondos adds, “and we know that’s a very good price.”

The Guide also includes information about changes in Securities and Exchange rule changes that need to be made, MSN believes, in order to make true community supported solar initiatives more possible. 

“A key challenge for CSS is changing regulations,” Kondos says, which discourage individual community members from investing incrementally in a solar project.  “We discuss this in the Guide and in a draft letter to officials, which we also include in the Guide and encourage others to use to get securities rules changed so more people can participate,” he adds.

Kondos has been involved in the solar industry for 15 years and says, “this is a really exciting time with so many new developments, and community-supported solar is one of the more exciting ones.  Our goal,” he says “is just to help make it better."

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