Fayetteville PWC Community Solar+Storage Farm Becomes Fully Subscribed
The Fayetteville Public Works Commission became the first public power utility in North Carolina to install a community solar farm in conjunction with battery storage in September 2019. Two years later in September 2021, the last 234 reserved panels were issued to 26 eligible customers as part of the CARES Act-funded Solar Access for Low to Moderate Income Customers project, making the program fully subscribed.
COMMUNITY SOLAR + STORAGE = SMART ENERGY SOLUTIONS FOR CUSTOMERS
The Public Works Commission (PWC) Community Solar Farm is a large-scale, ground-mounted solar array consisting of 3,348 solar panels and includes a 560 kilowatt battery. “The solar panels provide a maximum of 880 kWAC of power to the grid,” said Kathy Miller, Marketing Manager at Fayetteville PWC. “Total annual production from the array is nearly 1.6 million kilowatt-hours.”
The PWC first began looking into community solar plus battery storage after an independent survey indicated many of their customers were interested in renewable energy and sustainability. The NC Clean Energy Technology Center (NCCETC) provided a technical and economic analysis for the community solar project to help the municipal utility consider the viability, costs and value of the renewable energy in an effort to diversify their generation portfolio. Additionally, the NCCETC worked with the Fayetteville PWC to prepare a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) according to PWC’s procurement policy to help identify project developers local to the utility’s footprint.
The Community Solar Program offers PWC’s electric customers an alternative to rooftop solar and an opportunity to participate in a shared renewable energy option. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, only 25 percent of residential rooftops are suitable for solar. Community solar, however, enables all electric customers – whether owning or renting and whether residential or non-residential – to participate as a subscriber in the program.
“Community solar makes it possible for homeowners and renters to add renewable energy to the local power grid without the effort and expense of installing solar panels themselves,” said David Sarkisian, Senior Policy Project Manager at NCCETC.
The program began enrollment on November 1, 2019. Each panel is one subscription, and the average customer has subscribed to 5 panels. In return for paying their monthly subscription fee, customers receive a bill credit for the value of the solar production less the cost to operate the array. Today, out of Fayetteville PWC’s 83,000 total customers, 621 customers subscribed to one or more of the farm’s solar panels.
The addition of the 560 kW lithium-ion battery allows the utility to store 1,120 kilowatt hours of electricity. Although the battery storage was installed in conjunction with the solar array, it is not part of the Community Solar Program enrollment. Instead, the capacity reduction achieved by the dispatch of the batteries is shared by all electric ratepayers.
“The stored energy is discharged during peak usage times to reduce buying wholesale power from Duke Energy when it’s the most expensive, ultimately saving all of our customers money,” Miller said.
Conservation is one of PWC’s strategic priorities and as part of that objective to support the conservative and fiscally responsible use of water and energy, the Commission intends to develop solutions that meet their customers’ interest and help them save money. Currently, the PWC is surveying customer interest in the construction of a second community solar array. “We intend to study this in the next few weeks and move forward with another solar project in the coming year,” Miller said.
Earlier this year, PWC earned its second Smart Energy Provider designation from the American Public Power Association for demonstrating a commitment to and proficiency in energy efficiency, distributed generation, and environmental initiatives that support the goal of providing safe, reliable, low-cost, and sustainable electric service. The Community Solar and Battery Storage Project was included in PWC’s environmental and sustainable initiatives noted in the designation.
CREATING COMMUNITY SOLAR FOR LOW-INCOME CUSTOMERS
Along with the higher cost of installations and space requirements associated with rooftop PV systems, lower-income community members face many barriers to accessible solar power. Community solar programs remove some obstacles for those who cannot or prefer not to install solar on their own homes and businesses, but they still face difficulties reaching lower-income participants. While community solar programs can provide bill savings for their participants, the overall savings are usually relatively small, and can be of limited interest to people facing time constraints. Additionally, community solar projects can often become fully subscribed quickly by particularly interested customers, leaving little opportunity for those not following utility program offerings closely.
To address those barriers, there are many state and federal programs that reserve community solar subscriptions and pre-fund participation for lower-income utility customers. In October 2019, the North Carolina Weatherization Assistance Program (NCWAP) awarded grants of $128,000 to three organizations that provide community solar resources for qualified low-income residents – and Fayetteville PWC was one of the selected organizations.
NCWAP provides $3,200 per home, supporting the participation of 10 eligible household of PWC customers. Fayetteville’s model operates as a prepaid subscription with accrued interest over the project life to further support the project.
This year, NCCETC staff began working on behalf of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to distribute funds from the federal CARES Act in order to provide community solar subscriptions to lower-income utility customers at four North Carolina municipal and cooperative utilities. The program, called Community Solar Access for Low and Moderate-Income Utility Customers, provided a total of $166,400 to pre-pay for community solar subscriptions, which will be supplied by the participating utilities free of charge, and will save participating customers at least $15 a month on their electric bills for a period of 10 years. The Fayetteville PWC received CARES Act funding in September 2021, enabling 26 eligible customers to participate in the Community Solar Program despite the program being fully subscribed otherwise.
SETTING THE STAGE FOR COMMUNITY SOLAR IN THE SOUTHEAST
The Fayetteville PWC Community Solar project became the pilot to serve as a model for other municipal and cooperative electric utilities to develop similar programs for their communities as part of the US Department of Energy-funded Community Solar for the Southeast project. NCCETC’s Community Solar for the Southeast project aimed to accelerate the installation of community solar photovoltaic (PV) systems at municipal and cooperative electric utilities across the Southeast. Energy engineers and policy analysts developed an economic analysis model which included, i) system selection, ii) battery dispatch optimization, and iii) community solar program guidance. The Municipal Utility Case Study on Fayetteville’s program, completed for the U.S. DOE, can be found here.
“The cost-benefit analysis NCCETC provided included an hourly production and economic model incorporating monthly coincident peaks, ambient temperature, and solar radiation since 2009,” said Miller. “NCCETC also helped create a Request for Quotation for the installation, through which PWC chose design-build firm Dewberry to build the project.”
“Aided by subsidies, solar power can be the cheapest form of power,” said Miller. Fayetteville PWC completed the community solar project to both provide an affordable solar option to customers, and also help the Commission meet the Senate Bill 3 Renewable Energy Portfolio mandate requiring municipal utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.
While municipal utility companies can’t directly benefit from tax credits, it is possible to use funds required by the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard to partially support community solar development. These funds are collected from all utility electric customers as a means of accelerating renewable energy growth and, with aid from these funds, the value of solar production – at the avoided cost of electricity purchased from other sources – can exceed the life cycle cost of the solar array; thereby, offering positive financial benefit to those who subscribe to community solar.
Although community solar development at electric cooperatives and municipal utilities is still just in its beginning stages, the local decision-making ability and regulatory independence of co-ops and municipal utilities can be leveraged to develop community solar programs that are financially viable and provide benefits to their subscribers and to the utilities themselves.
The successful deployment of the Fayetteville PWC Community Solar Program shows that a community solar program coupled with energy storage can be a financially viable opportunity for similar utilities to consider. However, the economic situation and wholesale rate structure can vary by utility, and careful, utility-specific analysis is essential in determining if and how community solar programs can succeed.
“Through the Community Solar for the Southeast project, we have learned that cost-effective community solar programs are possible, even in a region with limited policy support,” said Sarkisian. The resources developed by the project team provide guidance and assistance for other utilities and organizations interested in pursuing community solar programs, both in the Southeast and elsewhere in the country.
Visit https://nccleantech.ncsu.edu/our-work/policy/community-solar-for-the-southeast-project/ for a comprehensive list of resources surrounding this project.
Learn more about Fayetteville’s Community Solar and how to be placed on the waitlist to be contacted when additional solar panels become available at https://www.faypwc.com/community-solar/.