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One New York Town's Solar Rollout

By Stacey Freed Rise Writer
Apr 14, 2021

According to 2019 Pew research, more than 4 in 10 US homeowners are considering residential solar panels. Aside from individuals, entire communities are committing to solar to supply energy to residents and businesses via Community Solar and Community Choice Aggregation programs. Why should communities do this, and how are they rolling these programs out to their residents?

Pittsford NY

Here's how Pittsford, NY, about eight miles southeast of Rochester, is going about it. First, it's helpful to understand what Community Solar is and how it differs from Community Choice Aggregation (CCA).

Community Solar in Almere, The Netherlands
Community Solar in Almere, The Netherlands

What Is Community Solar?

Solar panels are not suitable for every household. A community solar program allows individuals, non-profits, and commercial entities in a defined geographic area to gain purchasing power and take advantage of solar energy's financial benefits while reducing their carbon footprint. A Community Solar program requires utility account holders to choose to participate in the program; they must actively enroll.

Power Lines

What Is A Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) Program?

A CCA is a municipal program whereby a local government can get power on behalf of residents and businesses from an alternative supplier and its existing utility provider. The municipality does this to have more control over electricity sources, lower prices, and get more power through sustainable resources. Currently, CCAs are authorized in nine US states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia. The CCA is an opt-out program, and consumers are automatically enrolled.

Solar Field

Pursuing Solar Energy

Pittsford Town Supervisor Bill Smith says he became aware of community solar and CCAs at "around the same time" about three years ago. He attended a CCA presentation with several other local town supervisors. "We thought we'd do a CCA first and then pursue community solar once the CCA was underway," he says.

Rolling out these programs to town residents takes a long time. There is a certain level of ignorance, confusion, and even skepticism town leaders face. They have to educate residents to understand how these programs work and can save them money. And they have to cut through the advertising and marketing that energy companies send to consumers regularly. 

Even when municipalities make their decisions, residents may still be confused due to the number of entities involved in getting power to their homes. For the most part, consumers don't care where their electricity comes from; they want their lights to work when they flip the switch. Having so many choices hampers decision-making. Having a municipality make some of the decisions should make the process more straightforward.

Public Meeting

How Did the Town Educate Consumers About Their Solar Project? 

Pittsford publicized via newsletter and direct mail for the CCA and then held two public meetings about three years ago. Smith says, "there was a lot of public interest," and about 200 people (Pittsford has a population of nearly 30,000) attended the meetings. At these meetings, the town invited two companies to explain the program to residents. 

The town picked Joule Assets, one of the companies at the meeting, to administer the CCA. Later on, the city would also choose Joule to administer the community solar program and facilitate customer enrollment.

According to Smith, the town committed to getting residents 100% renewable energy at less than the rate offered by the local utility, Rochester Gas & Electric. But, on the first pass, Joule couldn't get that lower rate. "We couldn't make good on the town's commitment," Smith says. Pittsford switched gears and decided to "do community solar first, and when the market conditions [i.e., getting a lower rate] were more favorable, we would do a CCA," Smith says.

In December 2020, Joule was ready to hold its first meeting about community solar. But the meeting notice they mailed got caught up in holiday mail and arrived at residents' homes too late. Still, many people attended that first meeting, which the town also had publicized through its website, e-news, and a press release. They held a second meeting on Zoom in February 2021. "There was a lower level of interest than there was in the CCA," Smith admits, unsure of why that might be. For the community solar program, Pittsford joined forces with Pittsford Village and the town of Irondequoit.

Despite the lower attendance at the community solar meeting, people are opting in, Smith says. "As of early April, there were about 1,082 people signed up. Pittsford enrollment accounts for about 52% of that."


Many Entities Involved 

Solar energy comes from a field of solar panels, "usually enough to meet the needs of 400 to 800 homes, typically about 5 megawatts," says Sue Hughes-Smith, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Rochester Institute of Technology. The panels might be located in a field, an industrial area, a landfill, "any usable space, ideally near an appropriate access point to the existing electric grid to facilitate easy connections."

A private developer usually owns these panels; in New York, these include Next EraAbundant Solar, and 38 Degrees North. Panels are expensive to install, and developers need subscribers to recoup their investment and ultimately profit. "The need to get customers before a solar field is built has slowed the process of bringing these projects into being. Essentially, they have to go door to door to get customers," Hughes-Smith says.

The hope is that once a municipality picks a community solar administrator, potential customers will see this as an endorsement and sign on. "The endorsement translates into more confidence from consumers," Hughes-Smith says.

And yet, there is confusion. For one thing, there are a lot of entities involved, and a lot of names get thrown around. In Pittsford, Joule Assets subcontracts to Roctricity for customer service and local outreach. (Hughes-Smith is part of Roctricity's team.) Ampion does customer management of enrollment. Then there are the aforementioned solar developers — Next Era, Abundant Solar, and 38 Degrees North — who own the solar panels. The electricity itself comes from the New York Power Authority, and RGE takes care of the wires, the meters, and the billing. To top it off, consumers who sign up for community solar receive two bills, one from RGE and one from Ampion.


Doing the Math

Once a Pittsford consumer signs up with Ampion, which manages the community solar enrollment, they will begin to receive monetary credits on their electric utility bill. As Hughes-Smith puts it, "the utility purchases the solar energy, and the consumer (subscriber) is actually purchasing savings." She compares it to a $30 restaurant meal for $20 from Groupon. Consumers subscribe to a particular solar field. The savings associated with its energy generation are then allocated to their utility account.

For example, she says, "If I buy $100 of solar credits, the solar company gets paid $90, and I save $10. I'm paying $90 for $100 worth of solar credits."

Regardless of the simplistic explanation, it is still difficult for consumers to wrap their heads around. There's no way for consumers to compare one bunch of electrons to another bunch. One bunch is solar-generated, and the other might be fossil fuel-generated or hydro- or wind-. Consumers would only know one bunch of electrons is different from another because of labeling.

The good news is that "the public service commission rules for community solar require that the customer sees savings," Hughes-Smith says. "In [Pittsford's case], it's a 10% savings of the 'value' of the solar credits."

Each month, the solar producer knows how much solar energy is generated and how much is set aside for each customer. "The solar developer is trying to fill the solar field with customers," Hughes-Smith says. "They want all of the solar energy to be accounted for. "

The solar developer tells RGE how much solar savings to give each customer based on how much solar energy the field created - and how much of that is allocated to the particular customer based on their previous year's monthly use. There will be fluctuations since sunlight is not constant, and consumers may use a varying amount of electricity.

Power Lines and PV Panels

Continued Roll Out

As of mid-April, Pittsford still does not have a CCA set up. Town Supervisor Smith says they will go back out to bid this spring and hopes they're successful. "If we really want to meet sustainability goals, which our community aspires to do," he says, "we have to procure a product for electricity that's renewable and is accessible for everyone. That means using Community Choice Aggregation."

Smith believes that sometime in April, RGE will consolidate billing and include solar information on utility bills. This way, consumers will receive only one invoice, and Joule Assets will be able to offer community solar as an opt-out program, too. "That will simplify things, so consumers won't even have to sign up."

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-02T17:08:36+0000
Stacey Freed

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Stacey Freed

I’m constantly on the hunt for a way to hike and write simultaneously.