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Solar ACCESS Program
Solar ACCESS: Appalachian Citizens’ Community Economy Solar Shares
UpGrade Ohio’s Solar ACCESS program was developed to provide solar electric (PV) energy to low-to-moderate income (LMI) populations as a competitive applicant in the Department of Energy’s Solar in Your Community Challenge. The original idea was to connect traditional investors to solar investment packages that fund the deployment of solar on public buildings in southeast Ohio, generating a return to those investors based on the utility savings realized by the public institution receiving the solar system.
After careful consideration, the Solar ACCESS Team decided that the 1.3 megawatt (MW) solar installation on the Federal Hocking Secondary School would move forward with a traditional power purchase agreement (PPA) financing structure and is slated for construction in August 2018.
On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, voters in Athens, Ohio approved a "carbon fee" that will be built into the price of electricity secured for customers in the city’s electric aggregation program. The fees collected will be placed into a restricted fund and used for local solar projects on city buildings.
The carbon fee is a big milestone, proving that people are willing to pay more for their electricity to directly support clean energy development – pitching in their "carbon emissions share" to grow solar in their community.
The Solar ACCESS team is committed to bringing solar to more people, meeting UpGrade Ohio’s mission to drive demand for clean energy in Ohio. Our replication strategy for Solar ACCESS would aim to develop the organizational capacity to provide both technical and project development assistance for dozens of communities across the state of Ohio and in states that have a deregulated electricity market, or otherwise allow community choice aggregation. Solar ACCESS would offer a collection of best practices and services for creating aggregation-based community solar projects and programs.
- Project Updates
Solar ACCESS: A New Design for Community Solar in Appalachian Ohio
UpGrade Ohio’s Solar ACCESS project was developed to provide solar electric (PV) energy to low-to-moderate income (LMI) populations as a competitive project in the Department of Energy's Solar in Your Community Challenge.
Original Project-Track Strategy: Community Solar Investment Fund
Since UpGrade Ohio's inception of the Solar ACCESS project, the team initiated a 1.3 megawatt (MW) solar PV project at a public school in Athens County, Ohio. The original idea was to connect traditional investors/subscribers to solar investment packages that fund the deployment of solar on public buildings in southeast Ohio, while also generating a return to those investors/subscribers based on the utility savings realized by the public institution receiving the solar system.
The innovative component of the Solar ACCESS project was to create a mechanism for residents to contribute their own money to the pool of funds needed to install solar PV systems on public buildings that serve the low-to-moderate income community in Athens County. Initially, three project sites were selected, and the largest site, Federal Hocking Secondary School, was first in line to develop. Federal Hocking Local School District is one of five school districts in Athens County, serving 8,049 residents.
Solar ACCESS aimed to create community solar subscription shares at $100 per share for a 10-year term. Solar subscribers would receive a monthly on-bill credit based on share size. The low share price was selected to create greater access to the solar market for LMI residents who wanted to support solar in their community. A utility bill administrator and processor for community solar subscription holders would be utilized, allowing subscribers to pay for their electric utility bill and receive their solar subscription credit through a billing system.
In the process of designing this structure, we learned that this model added complexity to the contractual process for the Federal Hocking project, protracting negotiations. It also added confusion for potential subscribers who would be required to join an outside retail energy supplier in order to subscribe to a local community solar project. Rather than creating a way to increase access to the solar market, this model would have added more steps. Even if it may be attractive to individuals who were already interested in supporting community solar efforts, it would likely be an unsustainable model going forward.
Current Program-Track Pathway: Carbon Fee/Community Solar Program
Another pathway to community solar development that had been considered in the initial ACCESS team brainstorming sessions was to design a community solar program using municipal aggregation. Our long-standing partner and Solar ACCESS team member, the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council (SOPEC) was a natural fit for this opportunity. When the Solar in Your Community Challenge launched, SOPEC was still growing operations and expanding aggregation services to member communities. In December 2017, we pitched the idea of establishing an opt-out community solar program to SOPEC, and they granted permission to move forward with the idea.
Campaign for Community Solar
On February 5, 2018, Athens City Council approved an ordinance placing an opt-out 2 mill carbon fee on the ballot for voters in the City of Athens to consider at the May 8th primary election. The proposed 2 mill ($0.002 per kilowatt hour) carbon fee would raise the price of electricity to account for some of the social costs of carbon emissions caused by energy consumption. With the average home/small business account consuming between 800-900 kilowatt hours each month, the extra monthly charges from the partial carbon fee would range between $1.60 - $1.80 per account per month. Customers can opt-out of the carbon fee at any time by opting out of the community aggregation program or by selecting a new electricity supply contract at www.energychoice.ohio.gov
The revenues collected through the fee would be invested into a community solar program that would develop solar systems on public-serving buildings in the City of Athens. Beyond city government buildings, public buildings include school buildings, county government buildings, and buildings used by public boards such as the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities and the Fair Board.
At current usage levels, the partial carbon fee would provide enough revenues to fund 60 kilowatts of rooftop solar generation capacity per year. Each of these annual 60-kilowatt installations would offset 90,000 kilowatt hours of energy and save $10,000 per year throughout the service life of the solar system. After ten years, the 600-kilowatt portfolio of projects would offset 900,000 kilowatt hours of energy and save $100,000 per year on an ongoing basis. In addition, all renewable energy credits (RECs) awarded to projects funded through the community solar program will be transferred back to the carbon fee payers through the opt-out electric aggregation program.
The Athens City Sustainability Plan calls for a 20% reduction in residential and municipal energy consumed from the grid by 2020. The Plan also calls for a 20% increase in solar generation capacity within the City of Athens by 2020. The proposed opt-out carbon fee and community solar program represent the first institutionalized step toward incentivizing residential energy conservation, offsetting municipal energy consumption, and increasing solar generation capacity.
From February - May 2018, Solar ACCESS team worked with SOPEC and the City of Athens to inform voters about the opt-out carbon fee ballot issue. Through community-based campaign strategies, the Solar ACCESS team educated voters about the carbon fee issue. We produced educational literature including a website (www.athenscommunitysolar.com) a carbon fee fact sheet, yard signs, and “know the facts” cards. We hosted community info sessions and energy-related forums in collaboration with the City, Ohio University, the League of Women Voters, and area businesses.
Media-related strategies such as news articles, letters to the editor, campaign endorsements, and social media posts were also effective at reaching voters. There was significant coverage of the carbon fee ballot issue by local media outlets, including the Athens News, the Athens Messenger, and the local NPR-affiliate, WOUB. Additionally, one national media story, published by an independent energy journalist, received significant coverage in the Midwest.
Success at the Ballot Box
The result of these campaign activities was a landslide victory in favor of the carbon fee ballot issue. 76% of voters in the City of Athens approved the measure, demonstrating strong support from city residents. Passage of the ballot measure secured financing for the first municipal aggregation-based community solar program in the country.
Following the election, the Solar ACCESS team will be working with the City of Athens and its residents to host several public forums to gather input on site selection and the RFP process, and to design a plan of operations for collecting and administering the carbon fee for community solar projects. The fee is slated to take effect in early 2019, with a 12-month accrual period before solar installations can occur.
Reaching those in Need
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, The City of Athens median household income (in 2016 dollars) from 2012-2016 was $22,204. The per capita income in the past 12 months (in 2016 dollars) was $13,758. The percent of persons living in poverty is 54.7%. Additionally, according to the 2018 Ohio Poverty Report, Athens County had 31.2% of households living below the poverty line - the highest percentage in the state of Ohio.
City of Athens taxpayers will directly benefit from solar installations on city buildings due to the utility bill savings realized from the solar offset. Utility bill reductions allow the City to reallocate taxpayer funds for additional city services, and/or reduce city taxes in the future.
Scaling and Replication Strategies
To build upon the success of this initiative, the Solar ACCESS team is exploring avenues to scale this aggregation-based community solar model and replicate it in other SOPEC member communities. Further, demonstrating this model to communities in other states that have municipal aggregation has the potential to develop similar aggregation-based community solar programs throughout the country.
Another goal of the Solar ACCESS team is to explore how to bridge new sources of capital together with anticipated revenues generated by the carbon fee community solar fund. Foundations, private investment, corporate contributions and other debt/equity financing could grow small solar installations into much larger projects.
 US Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/athenscityohio#viewtop
 Ohio Poverty Report: https://www.development.ohio.gov/files/research/p7005.pdf