Month: March 2015

Community Solar: Key Considerations in Designing a Successful Program

sunshine lights up road

The first community solar programs were started nearly a decade ago, and, as the name suggests, the early efforts were led by communities — neighbors, small towns, places of worship — in each case, a group of people dedicated to building solar systems and sharing the benefits of the electrical output.

From these humble beginnings, community solar programs have grown and evolved to include many different design structures — in fact, some programs now use the moniker “shared renewables” to reflect the fact that the concept needn’t be limited to solar.  In this three-part series of articles, we’ll focus on what has become the most typical program design: community solar programs launched by utilities in service of their customers.

Frequent readers of Greentech Media know that utility-led community solar programs are growing rapidly in popularity. According to the Solar Electric Power Association, there are now more than 50 community solar programs planned or operating.  However, designing and launching a community solar program can be complex. Indeed, there are a number of questions that every utility faces as it works through the design of a program. Our three articles on the subject will walk through these questions, highlighting the many forks in the road toward the development of a successful program. Future articles will cover risk mitigation, impacts on utility bills, REC ownership, frequently debated terms and conditions, and best practices for customer messaging. Today, we’ll look at two key questions every utility considers when assessing a new community solar program: Who should own and operate the projects, and where should they be located?


Project ownership is perhaps the first question a utility should consider, because the answer will drive decisions about countless other program design points. There are three fundamental approaches.

Utility-owned: In this case, the utility designs and operates the community renewables program, and the energy is sourced from projects owned by the utility. This option is most likely to appeal to investor-owned utilities (IOUs) seeking a rate of return on the solar asset used for the program. It may also appeal to electric cooperatives and municipal utilities that have a strong history of owning assets and or those that want to gain experience managing the process of building utility-scale solar systems. It is still an open question whether state commissions will allow utilities to earn a return on assets deployed for one segment of their customer base, even if the utility guarantees remaining customers will be held harmless. We expect commissions across the country will soon begin providing guidance to utilities pursuing this option. Utility ownership also poses the risks of asset ownership to the utility, and can be an inefficient way to monetize certain advantageous tax treatments available to encourage the development of solar systems around the country, such as the federal solar Investment Tax Credit. What is clear is that this model directly aligns with utility interests, particularly for large programs with many participating customers.

Power-purchase agreement (PPA): Under this option, the utility designs and operates the community renewables program, but the energy is sourced from projects owned by others.Though the right to purchase the asset over time may be included in the PPA, this option is likely to be easier and faster to execute due to the lack of upfront capital constraints. In addition, this option can be appealing in that it exposes utilities to lower technology and operational risks and may be the most efficient way to monetize available tax credits. What’s more, utilities can ensure they are receiving the optimal level of energy, as developers’ returns are directly correlated to the productivity of the projects. While this option presents many benefits, the utility should consider any possible risks it is exposed to related to the developer and project under development, as it does with other PPAs it enters into.

Third-party turnkey provider: This model differs from the other two in that the third-party provider not only owns and operates the project but also designs the community solar program, acquires customers, bears program risk, etc. Legislation in Colorado and Minnesota has supported this turnkey program design as part of a larger policy prescription to drive development of distributed solar. This model has also proven very popular with electric cooperatives, but less so with IOUs.

So far, programs operating today have utilized a mix of these options, but as more IOUs seeking a return on investment begin to voluntarily launch programs, and as programs grow in size and importance to the utilities, we expect the market to tilt toward the utility-owned model.

Project location 

For utilities with small service territories, it is clearly appealing — though not always the right decision — to have the system sited within the service territory and close to customers. For utilities with larger footprints (for example, many IOUs), this issue is complicated by the fact that supply can’t technically be “local” for everyone, though it can be relatively closer and more visible to a high percentage of customers.

Local supply: A project within an urban area is clearly most appealing from a marketing perspective. People tend to connect more powerfully to a project they can see.  However, this option will typically be significantly more expensive (e.g., by 50 percent or more) than a more remotely located project that is optimally designed on cheaper real estate.

Regional supply: Projects located within a utility’s service territory or at least in the territory of the same balancing authority (but outside of urban centers) can benefit from lower capital and operational costs, as well as superior energy resources, and thus can make the community renewables program much more likely to provide meaningful financial and/or energy hedge benefits to end-use customers.  However, they also make it much less “visible” to customers being asked to participate.

Ultimately, 3Degrees expects to see utilities pursue a combination of these supply options for community solar programs going forward. In our experience, customers often verbalize a desire for extremely local supply, but when forced to act, they assign higher priority to a lower-cost option. Therefore, it will not be surprising to see community solar programs designed around a larger, cost-effective, regional project with other small projects located within population centers to provide visibility to the effort.

In the next article, we will cover risk mitigation for program design, REC ownership issues, and best practices for customer messaging about community solar.

Originally published in GreenTechMedia.

Farmers City Wind Project


Economic and Environmental Benefits Accrue at Missouri Wind Farm

More than four years after the Farmers City Wind Farm began harvesting Atchison County’s world-class wind resource in northwestern Missouri, the local economy and environment continue to reap the benefits – as do nearby green power program customers.

Relying on 73 towering Gamesa wind turbines scattered across 14,000 acres of still-productive agricultural land near the town of Tarkio, the project’s 146 MW of generating capacity produce enough clean, locally sourced renewable power to cover the electricity needs of 33,000 average homes in Missouri each year. Farmers City – the second-largest wind farm in the state.

Farmers City has generated millions of dollars in economic benefits since commencing commercial operation in April 2009. This includes an estimated $600,000 to $1,000,000 in annual county tax revenues used to fund essential community needs such as roads, schools and other services. Additionally, the project contributes approximately $365,000 in lease payments a year to 44 Atchison County landowners located within the project’s boundaries, providing a stable source of income to farmers coping with frequently volatile commodity prices. Moreover, since the turbines themselves occupy less than 1 percent of the project’s total acreage, the farmers continue to grow soybeans and corn on the vast majority of the land.

Developed and owned by Iberdrola Renewables, Farmers City was built largely between May 2008 and March 2009, creating about 150 jobs at peak construction and employing an average workforce of 100 over the course of construction. Since coming online, Iberdrola continues to employ a small operation and maintenance crew onsite.

Wind power potential in Missouri

Farmers City is one of several major wind farms clustered in the northwestern corner of Missouri, home of the state’s best wind resources – which are ranked 14th overall in the United States by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). If fully built out, the state’s wind resources theoretically could provide more than nine-times its current electricity demand, according to NREL.

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Missouri’s existing wind farms possess a combined generating capacity of 459 MW and collectively produce enough renewable energy to power approximately 95,000 average homes. This wind power will avoid 10.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, estimates AWEA (PDF download). Despite uncertainty over federal tax credits for wind energy production that has slowed the sector’s growth in 2013, another 2,250 MW of projects are in the development queue in Missouri.

Based on the trade group’s data, annual property tax payments from Missouri’s wind project owners contribute more than $2.6 million into local economies, while annual land lease payments tally over $1.3 million.

The state’s wind energy industry supports up to 2,000 jobs at approximately a dozen turbine component manufacturers across the state, such as Emerson Electric Co. and Zoltek in St. Louis and Milbank Manufacturing in Kansas City.

Farmers City Wind Farm is leading the way in beginning to tap the state’s vast potential for harnessing its homegrown wind energy resource – and all of the associated environmental and economic benefits.

3Degrees’ Multiple Mix Product is Green-e Energy certified and meets the environmental and consumer protection standards set forth by the nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions. Learn more at:

Martinsville Landfill


New Jobs Created with Landfill Gas Project

After the loss of thousands of furniture and textiles manufacturing jobs in recent decades the city of Martinsville, Virginia is taking a progressive approach to powering its future. The city installed a green energy project at the now closed Martinsville Landfill. The project generates enough power to supply two to three percent of local demand and saves government as much as $400,000 annually in electricity costs[1].

The landfill served region for 33 years. Since it’s closure in 2006 the facility  was permanently sealed with a clay cap storing 1.7 to 1.8 million tons of solid waste underground. While sealed the decomposing waste turns into methane, one of the most dangerous of greenhouse gases, that is then is gathered and burned to make electricity. Unburned the methane would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

“To me, it shows the mindset of the community in regard to how we view the future,” says Leon Towarnicki, Martinsville’s city manager.[2] “This is using a resource that was just lying there and was going to be a liability to the city and turning it into something good, something that has value: power from trash.”

In addition to cost savings from making their own power, the project also creates an income stream for the city by selling renewable energy certificates (RECs). The RECs represent the “greenness” of the power and are sold to others who want to support green power. With this income, the project is expected to pay for itself in five years and make power for twenty.



Pa’Tu Wind Farm


Oregon Wind Farm is a Community Affair

The name PáTu, meaning snowfields, comes from Native America legends surrounding Mt. Adams, a majestic snow covered peak north of Wasco Oregon. The land was home to the ancient Wasco and Yakama tribes who believed the snowfields were the source of all life and energy. Pa´Tu continues its legacy of being a source of energy through Pa’Tu Wind Farm, which produces 27,000,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

Pa´Tu Wind Farm is owned and operated by brothers Ormand and Jeff Hilderbrand, on land their family has farmed since the late 1800s. Such local ownership and control is uncommon in the renewable energy business, as it is much more typical to have corporate investment. And for owner Ormand keeping things local is a point of pride for himself and his community. “When I finally turn a profit, I will invest it here because this is my home,” said Hilderbrand, a 1969 Sherman High School graduate. “I plan to build a house, buy vehicles from local dealers, and employ local workers.”

There is a place for all size wind farms

Hilderbrand believes “both large and small projects are important for Oregon’s future.” Both sizes create jobs but the smaller, independently owned projects keep more money in the local economy. Pa’Tu employs 4 fulltime employees which are supported by 5-8 part time employees and is also responsible for over $300,000 in revenue being added to the local community each year[i].

Pa´Tu’s six General Electric wind turbines convert strong eastern Oregon winds into enough electricity, enough to power over 2200 homes. The turbines are a pragmatic choice having been designed to create the highest capacity factor in its class as well as ensure reliability through ease of maintenance and high commonality in spare parts.

3Degrees’ Multiple Mix Product is Green-e Energy certified and meets the environmental and consumer protection standards set forth by the nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions. Learn more at:



Rollins Wind


Wind Power Revitalizes Remote Community

In addition to pollution-free power wind farms, such as Rollins Wind in Maine, provide income stream to landowners and boost rural economies with tax revenue and stability. The project itself has a total capacity of 60 megawatt but the real story lies in the economics.

Located just outside four small communities in Penobscot county Rollins Wind is Maine-made energy without question. From planning through completion project developers First Wind, now SunEdison, was committed to maximizing the economics for Maine. During construction 97 Maine-based companies were engaged, including 19 in the immediate area, bringing an impressive $29 million to the state. Additionally, during construction restaurants were full and hotels were sold out thanks to the over 500 contractors utilized over the 2 year construction period – with as many as 200 full-time positions during peak construction, including day-to-day management roles.

The project continues to have positive incremental impact for the county. For at least 30 years Rollins is expected to provide an estimated tax revenue totaling $24 million[1] to surrounding communities.  This money creates stability for governments and reduces burden on tax payers. Lincoln, the projects nearest neighbor expects $260,000 every year for the next 30 years. “We can put up street lights with that… That’s money that we don’t have to ask taxpayers for,” said Town Manager Lisa Goodwin.[2] Within the first year, Lincoln moved fast to take advantage of new-found funds to purchase needed equipment including a new plow truck, pickup, police cruiser, and completing necessary paving projects. “Having a wind farm in this community and its tax revenue helps us attract other businesses,” adds Will Labrie[3], Executive Director of the Lincoln Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We already had natural resources, but now we have improved infrastructure and a stable tax base.”

Wind power projects keep land usable for other activities

For some, the biggest opportunity comes from protecting lands from other development. “Wind power allows large landowners the opportunity to maximize the value of their land. That helps preserve large tracts of land for public use,” said Bob Meyers[4], Executive Director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. Without, landowners face increasing pressure to sell or subdivide. “If that trend is allowed to continue, we will see an erosion of outdoor recreation opportunities.”

Rollins Wind’s 40 1.5 megawatt wind turbines generate enough power for estimated 23,000 homes annually.




Milpitas Unified School System


New Clean Energy Curricula and Budget Savings Thanks to Solar Energy

Milpitas Unified School District envisioned a program that would promote solar energy, save general fund dollars, steward the environment and provide ongoing educational opportunity. To meet this goal, the school district installed a 3.4 megawatt photovoltaic solar system across 13 schools and one district administration building.

As part of the program’s educational component, the solar installations support curriculum that is aligned with the state’s testing requirements and provide hands-on learning tools for students and teachers. The panels in the form of parking canopies and shade structures are on every school campus, bringing daily attention to clean energy and provide hands on opportunity for students and teachers. Each site also has educational displays with project information and real-time energy production data[i].

Solar energy help stabilize budgets

In addition to expanded curriculum, the school district enjoys greater budget stability and predictability.  Together with energy efficiency measures, this initiative matches 75% of the district’s electricity needs during the school year, and 100% in the summer months[ii]. Through the initiative, Milpitas Unified School District will save $12 million over the life of the project[iii].  Savings come from three sources: Lower electricity costs, thanks to energy efficiency measures installed in tandem with the solar project; additional revenues from the sale of renewable energy certificates (RECs); and selling unused power in the summer months.

The Renewable energy generated through the project is expected to have a carbon reduction similar to planting 1252 football fields worth of pine forest[iv].

3Degrees’ Multiple Mix Product is Green-e Energy certified and meets the environmental and consumer protection standards set forth by the nonprofit Center for Resource Solutions. Learn more at:






Misty Meadows Farm


Dairy Digester Creates Income While Reducing Greenhouse-gas Emissions

Misty Meadow Dairy, just outside of Tillamook Oregon is home to over two thousand cows. Owned and managed by Dave & Rita Hogan, the family farm has been in business for thirty years and employs over a dozen area residents. Along with a hundred other member dairies, the farm sells its milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association, maker of the famous cheddar cheese and other popular dairy products.

The cluster of dairy farms in the Tillamook area is what drew Farm Power Northwest founders Kevin and Daryl Maas. Farm Power specializes in building and operating dairy digesters which bring economic benefits, save time, and make farmers better neighbors. For Misty Meadow, manure is now digested at 100F for several weeks in a sealed concrete tank before going to a 16 million gallon holding tank now capped by a massive cover—it was previously open to the elements.  The digestion process captures almost all the methane in the manure and prevents more than 7,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere each year.[i] The methane is then used to make power and renewable energy certificates.

Tillamook, a popular tourist destination on the Oregon Coast, is known for its beaches but the experience can also include manure odor and prodigious amounts of wintertime rainfall.[ii] The digester helps reduce odor while also keeping rain out of the manure, cutting the volume that must be stored and spread. The digestion process also creates a fiber product that is clean, pure and can be used horticulturally or for animal bedding.[iii] In exchange for providing cow waste, the farm will save $100,000 or more a year on bedding alone.

In addition to assisting local dairy farmers and mitigating the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, Farm Power Northwest is creating local construction and installation work and has hired a permanent local staff of three employees in the Tillamook area. The digester at Misty Meadow Dairy is the fifth Farm Power Northwest project in Washington and Oregon.