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Local solar options grow 

Until recently, if you wanted to power your house with locally generated solar energy, you had limited options. If you owned your home, you could put solar panels on its roof, if you could afford the initial investment and your property had good exposure to the sun. If you were a renter, you have had few options.

Renewable energy advocates have long said that there’s a way to make solar power accessible to more people. They’ve argued in favor of an approach called community solar, where developers build larger solar projects and sell shares of the generated power to area households. Ever since New York officials removed some regulatory hurdles, community solar development has picked up statewide.

In the Rochester region, there’s enough consumer appetite that Greenspark, based in the Town of Ontario, has “developed, installed, and filled” three projects in Ontario and Webster, which power approximately 200 households, says Meaghann Schulte, a company spokesperson. Greenspark is also working on a shovel-ready project in Parma, which could be online by October and would serve another 250 households, she says.

“In fact, we have so much interest that we have had to place people on a waiting list for our next projects,” Schulte said in an e-mail.

Greenspark’s customers generally pay less for electricity than they would if they bought it through Rochester Gas and Electric, Schulte says. The solar projects are all in RG&E’s service area, as are the customers.

And recently, Washington, D.C.-based Arcadia Power started marketing its community solar program to Rochester area households. The company is partnering with ForeFront Power, a global corporation that’s building a solar farm in Red Creek, Wayne County, and another in Canandaigua. They’ll provide power for about 1,000 customers in the National Grid, NYSEG, and RG&E service areas, says Arcadia CEO Kiran Bhatraju.

“It is customers buying power from a very specific renewable-energy project local to their community,” Bhatraju says. “It really wasn't possible until recently."

Arcadia’s rates are based on a formula: Whatever the utility company is charging for electricity, Arcadia’s solar power will cost 5 percent less, Bhatraju says. The company is currently accepting sign-ups at www.arcadiapower.com/community-solar/new-york/.

New York is requiring utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030. Renewable energy advocates and state officials see community solar as an important tool for reaching that benchmark.

Environmental groups have been pushing another arrangement to boost local renewable energy purchasing: community choice aggregation. The approach is akin to a buyer’s club for electricity. A municipal government or group of governments solicits energy supply contracts for its households and small businesses; those are the customers who'll pay for the power. The governments can specify various requirements of suppliers, including an entirely renewable supply, which is what makes the approach attractive to climate and environmental activists.

Brighton resident Sue Hughes-Smith and other members of the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition have led the push for local governments to sign on to CCA. Hughes-Smith doesn’t see community solar impacting aggregation, though CCA does provide solar developers with access to larger customer pools.

Hughes-Smith also points out that community solar programs continue an old environmental strategy of asking people to change their habits, while CCA spurs a broader change.

“After nearly 20 years of electricity deregulation that has provided individuals with ‘choice,’ only 15% of people take this action,” Hughes-Smith says in an e-mail. “CCA, on the other hand, is an act of collective action where communities change the default electric choice to enable 85 percent or more participation.”

Locally, Brockport, Brighton, and Scottsville have approved CCA programs but are in various stages of launch. The City of Rochester has been considering CCA, as have towns including Irondequoit and Pittsford.

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