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September 17, 2015

Solar for the Other 75 Percent

By Glenn Steiger, General Manager of Alameda Municipal Power

I remember visiting my daughter earlier this year in New York City. We walked around this vast city and took in the sights of Manhattan. It had everything you’d expect from a busy metropolitan hub including taxis, skyscrapers, shopping and lots of people. But what caught my attention was something else: the Clinton Community Garden. Here neighbors share the land, share the work and reap the benefits of home-grown produce. Shared space combined with shared resources and a common goal is a powerful combination. I began to think about how Alameda might create its own community garden to produce not food, but solar energy.

Like other cities, Alameda’s neighborhoods are becoming increasingly dotted with photovoltaic panels as the idea of solar as an energy option grows in popularity. But a closer look at our neighbors who choose to install solar shows that they all have one thing in common: They are all property owners. Because of the high number of rental properties in Alameda, that means that fewer than half of all residents can consider solar. Add to that the number of multi-family units and shaded roofs and that number grows to 75 percent who are left out of the solar option. This creates two classes of “solar citizens” – those who own homes or businesses and can put solar on their roofs versus everyone else. Businesses who rent their spaces are also left out of the traditional solar option.

But what if the renter, the apartment dweller, the condominium owner in the ground floor unit, the family-owned grocery store, and the homeowner whose house is shaded by oak trees could all enjoy solar as an energy choice in Alameda? What if there was a way to make solar available to the 75 percent who can’t choose solar? Community solar may be the answer.

The idea is simple. Instead of putting solar on your own home, community solar lets many people come together to build one larger solar array. Like the community garden, individuals share a large garden space, only with solar panels and no zucchini. You enroll in the project by paying upfront or by monthly subscription to purchase energy from a portion of the garden. The electricity that your share produces is then deducted from your monthly utility bill as if the solar were on your roof.

The energy generated locally on rooftops, parking lots, landfills and other underutilized spaces doesn’t rely on transmission lines to deliver power to consumers. Solar gardens also offer customers economies of scale they wouldn’t be able to achieve with individual rooftop projects because installing one large solar array in one location requires far less time, money and effort than installing several small arrays in multiple locations. Community solar is also renewable energy. This helps AMP meet the governor’s energy goals that require California’s energy mix to be at least 50 percent renewables by 2030. But of all its benefits, community solar’s greatest benefit may be that it allows the other 75 percent to choose solar too.

Is community solar an idea whose time has come for Alameda? This will be the topic of discussion at Alameda Municipal Power’s next town hall meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Come learn more about how community solar works and let us know if you think it’s a good fit for Alameda.