Podcast 087: Jeff Cramer: How community solar can make local energy accessible to everyone.

What is community solar? How does it work? What are the benefits? Host Bill Nussey drills into the critical role community solar plays in a clean local energy future with Jeff Cramer, President and CEO of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, CCSA. Jeff dives into the nitty-gritty of how it all works, who it serves and the business models that make it a reality. Plus, Jeff shares where community solar is growing across the United States, where it is being held back and why and the efforts CCSA teams are making to change thinking and policies about this foundational approach to reshaping our energy future.

Here are some of the highlights from their discussion…

“If you look back to 2015 when we started CCSA, there was around 200 megawatts of community solar on the system. So that’s roughly a hundred of these projects total. And today, we’re at four plus gigawatts…”


“Some of the modeling we’ve done actually shows that by 2030 anywhere from 30 to even 50 plus gigawatts of community solar could be cost effectively deployed based on what customers want…”


“…When you create a statewide [community solar] program, it creates a competitive marketplace for those companies to compete for customers, and in some cases compete for lower costs of development of those systems.”

You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts

CCSA – Coalition For Community Solar Access

CCSA – White Paper On Interconnection Strategies

NREL – Community Solar Content

NREL – Community Solar Projects 

CleanTechnica – Community Solar for Low and Moderate Income Families

Full Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Well, hello and welcome to everybody in the Freeing Energy community. Our, our fans and supporters, and all of you that are lending the most valuable resource in your lives, your time to listen in and help us think through how do we get to clean energy faster. As you know, if you’ve listened to it more than a few of these, we think one of the fastest pass to clean energy is these small scale systems. Rooftop, solar batteries, microgrids.

Bill Nussey:

And we talk about community solar, but today that is the topic. Community solar is we’re going to go really deep and we’re going to talk to one of the US leaders, thought leaders, advocacy leaders on making community solar, even more prevalent and even faster growing than it is.

Bill Nussey:

So I am super excited to tell you about today’s guest. His name is Jeff Cramer. He’s the president and CEO of CCSA, the Coalition of Community Solar Access. CCSA is a national coalition of businesses and nonprofits working to expand customer choice and access to solar for all American households and businesses throughout the country with community solar. They want to help every energy consumer, whoever they are to have options.

Bill Nussey:

So when they want to have local clean energy, there’s something available to them particularly when they don’t have a rooftop or it’s not something they can do on their own homes. They work across the spectrum with customers, utilities, local stakeholders, policy makers, to implement and develop policies and best practices that ensure community solar programs are sort of a triple win for everybody involved. So it’s going to be a great discussion. I’m super excited to welcome Jeff Cramer. Good to have you on today.

Jeff Cramer:

Thanks, Bill. I’m very excited to be here and talk a bit about community solar and local solar generally.

Bill Nussey:

So let’s dial the time machine way back to how you actually got into renewables and community solar. Back in the day, the earlier part of your career, you were doing some interesting work in Maine. So tell us that story. What got you into this very cool industry?

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah. Going way back. When I got out of college, I was a government and philosophy major and I was equally enamored by the clean energy sector at the time. And this was 2005, 2006. So I was like you saying how do I get into this sector and take the skills that I have which are certainly not an engineering skills, but a bit more of the policy, government market creation. And while also serving drinks at a bar and being carpenters assistant, I was on a small island off the coast of Maine called is Islesford or Little Cranberry Island. There were community members that were really interested in how do we create our own generation? How do we unlock the potential of the natural resources we have out here?

Jeff Cramer:

So not knowing how to do that, but having the value of time on my hands, I thought, well, maybe there’s something we could do to help. So working with a couple of the selectmen who are essentially city counselors of those small communities in New England put together a little study of what could be done to increase self generation and energy efficiency there.

Jeff Cramer:

Of course that led to a lot of nos. Going to the local utility, I even remember it was Bangor Hydro then, and they brought out these paper maps that were… They must not have looked at these maps in decades, but they brought out these paper maps showing, “Okay, this is where the distribution line goes. Yeah, that’s not going to work. You can’t plug anything in there. No.”

Jeff Cramer:

So while we did do some early financial models of, “Oh, how could we build maybe a hundred kilowatt turbine and have community financing for it and spread the credits out?” But there were neither the policy mechanisms, the market mechanisms nor the sort of grid knowhow or cost compatibility at the time to do it. So it did create a curiosity and a perspective that this could be done, but there were a lot of barriers at the time. So that was the beginning of the road.

Bill Nussey:

I love the story and I’m just imagining these conversations in this small community with all these interested parties and the utilities coming in with their old maps. It’s just the juxtaposition makes me laugh. Great story. So take us forward from that point where you didn’t get to build some local energy projects to how you ended up getting to CCSA, which we’ll talk about in a few minutes.

Jeff Cramer:

So from there at least I had seen that these barriers were predominantly policy barriers because the electricity sector is so highly regulated that in order to unlock the potential of innovation competition and new technologies, you really have to set policies in place. And if you look at around the world where that’s been done and where that innovation’s happened, it’s where the policy has led. So I got involved in some small environmental campaigns, just becoming an organizer essentially for environmental groups.

Jeff Cramer:

Took a sideways route then through an investment bank doing early market research. It was an interesting route to go from collecting signatures and calling policymakers and threatening negative media coverage to the 41st floor of an investment bank tower doing early market research on startups. It was quite a shift, but it was really helpful in understanding how capital moves and how businesses mature and how markets mature.

Jeff Cramer:

But again, I think realizing that this innovation could happen and we can increase efficiencies and reduce costs of solar panels, create new storage technologies. But if the policies aren’t in place, there’s not much you can do. So I went to Washington DC after that to do lobbying at the federal level for clean energy businesses and trade groups. And that led me to doing work for small rooftop solar companies, and large rooftop solar companies, energy storage. The Energy Storage Association, actually, where I served as the state policy director for a bit as a consultant.

Jeff Cramer:

And then also getting to know some of the early players in the community solar space. When I was doing that around 20, I think it was, 14, 2013-2014, you saw that same barrier. Again, you saw an opportunity around a new technology and a service and a product that customers wanted, but you saw this barrier in that if you want to build a community solar facility, you need a state program that’s enabled by legislation. You need to be able to interconnect that project.

Jeff Cramer:

So you need to have some kind of interconnection procedure with utilities and you need a way to credit that customer for the electricity they’re subscribed to and all that takes policy. So working with those folks, we learned that if we banded together, there was a greater opportunity to affect change. And that is what created CCSA back in 2015.

Bill Nussey:

Great story. So you were there from the beginning with CCSA?

Jeff Cramer:

Yes. I was actually a consultant with 38 North Solutions, and then I felt like I was juggling quite a bit because at that time I was serving as the state policy director for the Energy Storage Association and the executive director of CCSA. And then I had like three or four other clients on methane emission mitigation on critical materials recycling. So my head was sort of spinning at that moment. I came back to my roots, I suppose and I said, “I really want to focus on this opportunity to expand access to solar and to drive solar adoption through community solar.”

Bill Nussey:

So quick clarification. I plugged my laptop into the wall the other day to charge it and I was effectively interconnecting at the grid.

Jeff Cramer:

That’s true.

Bill Nussey:

So everybody tells me-

Jeff Cramer:

That’s absolutely right.

Bill Nussey:

… you hear about all these interconnection issues of the giant projects are delayed by years. Interconnecting a community solar project, which is a bit smaller, takes a while. So just what do you mean by interconnection for the folks on listening and don’t know exactly what that means?

Jeff Cramer:

I think in a helpful metaphor would be that the houses of the past have however many outlets, right? Surge protectors and extension cords didn’t used to exist because you had six things you had to plug in. Right? And then as we got more TVs, gadgets, all these things, all of a sudden we’re putting in our surge protectors. It’s working out okay, but at some point when you have so much plugged in, you’re tripping the circuits. And when you’re tripping those circuits, you need to start upgrading the wires that connect everything within your house.

Jeff Cramer:

You need to upgrade your own kind of, perhaps your service panel. You need to upgrade the amount of voltage that goes through the cables in your walls. And when you’re plugging more and more in to that distribution grid or to your home in this analogy, you need to make those upgrades to better accommodate those things that you need to plug in.

Jeff Cramer:

Now, the good news is that the sort of catastrophizing of this scenario has not come to fruition in real life. You look at places like Southern Australia and they’ve got 13 gigawatts of rooftop, solar, and they don’t have reliability issues. In fact, they overallocated dollars for reliability to mitigate against it. So I think we’re seeing is that these concerns about interconnection and the like are more theoretical. And the practical application is that we need to put procedures in place to update interconnection standards now so we can plug in the queue of rooftop, community, solar, other CNI solar that’s going to want to come online and need to come online in the next few years.

Speaker 1:

Community solar. Sometimes it’s called solar gardens or maybe even shared solar. But no matter what term you hear, this is a form of local energy that gives families choices and allows them to directly benefit from cleaner, cheaper solar power even if they don’t have a roof or can’t access one. And as we are learning today, this is a local distributed energy model that is taking hold in more and more parts of the country.

Speaker 1:

Community solar also extends the benefits of solar to low and moderate income families who otherwise can access their roofs or don’t have the credit to finance their own panels. Our guest today, Jeff Cramer mentions NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL is one of 17 Department of Energy national laboratories in the United States. NREL has studied and closely follows the growth of community solar across all 50 states and provides extensive planning and modeling tools along with gobs of data for community leaders and clean energy advocates as they explore this option.

Speaker 1:

NREL notes in a recent report that at the end of 2021, some 39 states and Washington DC have community solar projects while 22 states plus Washington DC have policies that explicitly support community solar. Where are the bulk of those projects? 74% are located in just four states, Florida, Minnesota, New York, and Massachusetts.

Speaker 1:

But more and more projects are in the pipeline and more and more states are looking very closely at the community solar model as a way to address energy equity, economic efficiency and climate goals. We’ve included links to both CCSA and NREL material as part of the show notes for this episode over on freeingenergy.com. If you’re interested in community solar, this is a great starting point. But what is the best way for you to accelerate the adoption of community solar in your area? Well, listen in as Jeff Cramer shares the most important things you can do as he and Bill wrap this fascinating dive into community solar. And don’t forget to let us hear from you. Like and subscribe to the Freeing Energy Podcast, leave a comment and share with your friends and colleagues. Now, back to Bill and Jeff.

Bill Nussey:

So let’s take a deep definitional dive into community solar. So I kind of think I know what it is. I’ve certainly seen my share, read great deal about it, but you are the pointy tip of the spear on community solar. So tell me, what is your functional definition of community solar and what does it mean? And also, just kind of curious, what does it look like?

Jeff Cramer:

Sure. I’ll speak to both of them. So rooftop solar is an intuitive concept. It’s solar that’s on your roof that is connected to your electric grid, which is your house and the electric grid writ large. Community solar serves as an option for the majority of customers that don’t have the option to put solar on their roof, but they can subscribe to it in their community. And the benefit of doing that is it’s easy, it’s very simple, and it’s gotten far easier over the past few years, and we can talk more about the innovation we’ve seen in the space. But it’s easy to do, and it’s once more ubiquitous on the system accessible to anyone.

Bill Nussey:

Definitionally, does it have to be on my distribution grid? The mid power wires that flow, the power poles. Does it have to be connected to that to be called community solar?

Jeff Cramer:

Traditionally, yes. But as we look forward and look at new models for community solar, I think you could see changes there. But I think at the moment, yes, it’s located on the distribution system. And there’s a reason for that. The reason is that it’s, A, within the community and within that utility service territory that doesn’t require a transmission interconnection, but a distribution interconnection. So again, go back to that analogy, plugging into the house, but not the transformer outside your yard perhaps.

Jeff Cramer:

By being located in the community and the distribution system, it’s going to have incremental benefits to the system being closer to load and an ability to build more incrementally. You can more easily plug in two, three, five megawatts onto a distribution system than you can’t do that with the utility scale system.

Bill Nussey:

I happen to know that community solar, it’s taking off. Can you give us some data to give folks listening in. Is this a thing? Is this a big deal? Where is it getting done? Is it popular?

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah, it certainly is. I mean, if you look back to 2015 when we started CCSA, there was around 200 megawatts of community solar on the system. So that’s roughly, I think, a hundred of these projects total. And today, we’re at four plus gigawatts with…

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Jeff Cramer:

So megawatts to gigawatts add a thousand there to the megawatts. And we’ve got a number five plus gigawatts in the pipeline of new projects to build.

Bill Nussey:

Really?

Jeff Cramer:

And the Department of Energy actually recently just came out with a goal that by 2025, 5 million Americans would have access to community solar which is the equivalent of 20 gigawatts of community solar. That’s a goal, that’s a target, but we’re meeting that growth trajectory at least from when you look back to 2015 to today. And some of the modeling we’ve done is actually shown that by 2030 anywhere from 30 to even 50 plus gigawatts of community solar could be cost effectively deployed based on what customers want, the amount of customers that want access and what the grid needs to meet lowest cost and climate goals depending on states that have that.

Bill Nussey:

When I started this whole journey into clean energy and clean tech, I wanted to get solar. And I checked into it here in Georgia, it was kind of difficult. But Georgia Power, my utility had this program where I could use their community solar. I could rent a couple of panels and I pay, I think, a yearly or monthly fee. And then I essentially get the electricity they credited against my bill. I have since talked to many, and I did it. I think I bought half a dozen panels or rented half a dozen panels.

Bill Nussey:

It was clear that it was making my electricity more expensive. Renting them was actually increasing my electricity bill, but Georgia Power was sending me emails telling me how proud they were of me because I was helping the environment. And since I knew solar was pretty cheap, I thought I was probably helping their profits even more, but it was unsatisfying.

Bill Nussey:

So I eventually canceled that and got solar in my roof and batteries in my garage. And that’s far more satisfying because I’m very fortunate that I have a house and the credit score that allows me to do those things, which is part of the problem to be solved in the United States because not everybody can do that. Most people can’t actually. My experience was buying community solar through my utility. I understand is not the typical approach. How is my experience like and unlike what the majority of people that can use community solar? How’s it compared to their experience?

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah. So I think you’re bringing up a number of issues and probably most important of those is equity, which is one of the driving purposes of why community solar is proliferating, which is equity and access to solar. When you’re shopping for solar panels for your roof, you probably can get five, 10 different bids on who will put on your roof. And in some states that haven’t created a community solar program, maybe the utility has created its own product, but it’s like kind of saying like this is the one stop shop. You can only get one option. And typically when you have one option in a market, you don’t really have a lot of competition and you don’t really have great pricing.

Bill Nussey:

Yes.

Jeff Cramer:

So that’s probably what’s happening there, and that is what’s happening in those states. So one of the values that community solar is it creates a competitive marketplace.

Bill Nussey:

We love competition.

Jeff Cramer:

Yes.

Bill Nussey:

We’re all capitalists here. Many of us are. I am.

Jeff Cramer:

Yes. But capitalists with a social and an environmental drive.

Bill Nussey:

Absolutely.

Jeff Cramer:

So community solar, when you create a statewide program, it creates a competitive marketplace for those companies to compete for customers, and in some cases compete for lower costs of development of those systems.

Bill Nussey:

So I could have different community solar providers in some states that are all-

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah, they do.

Bill Nussey:

… saying, “Hey, Bill. We’re going to charge you this.” And the other firm says, “Well, I can actually charge you a little less, but we’ve also got some other benefits, better billing system, whatever.” So it’s very competitive.

Jeff Cramer:

Exactly. We’ve had even at times when we go to state policy makers, they’ll say, “We need to create a provision in this program that demonstrates that there’s demand for it before you go out and you build your projects.” And then we respond saying, as to your point as environmental and social capitalists, it’s like, “Well, no, we’re going to put millions of dollars of our own private capital down knowing that there is that demand out there and we’re risking our own capital. We don’t need another step, an onerous step to see if we demonstrate demand on the front end.” We are taking a risk in putting forth that private capital because we know that customers want to save money and they want access to solar.

Bill Nussey:

How how many states… Let me ask this… Community solar is driven by state policy. That’s the overarching umbrella that sets what I might have depending where I live in terms of options. Is that right?

Jeff Cramer:

Generally, yes. If there was sort of one thing I could change in the elect in the energy policy marketplace would be the fact that every state is its own little kingdom of policies and markets. And when you’re especially dealing with the distribution system, you’re dealing with state public utility commissions and state legislatures, unless you’re dealing with transmission, which is regional, which can apply to regional markets or FERC, you have to deal with the state PUCs and the state legislatures.

Jeff Cramer:

So to create a community solar program, I mentioned it earlier, to be able to build the project, interconnect it, have access to the customer’s bill, you need some sort of a policy mechanism to enable that access. Yes.

Bill Nussey:

And are the policy mechanisms largely the same state to state or does some say, “Wild west, anyone can do anything,” and others say, “It has to be super narrow”? How does that vary across the US?

Jeff Cramer:

It does vary. We try to advocate for streamlining that process and doing it in a way that is consistent from state to state. You can see certain states like a New York is a great example of a state that has set up a marketplace for community solar and done it right. So they created their program back in 2015 and they took their time in terms of developing sort of the compensation structure and the citing structures, the billing structures. But now they’re over a gigawatt in capacity, New York alone, with multi gigawatts in the queue.

Jeff Cramer:

So there’s ways that it can be done right, and there’s ways that are a bit more complicated. Typically, what we see is in restructured markets. So those are markets that the utility for those that aren’t steeped in utility regulation are the utilities don’t own the generation or the power plants. It’s a bit easier to set up because you’re not dealing with any kind of inherent competition of who owns what resources.

Bill Nussey:

Ah, right. Great point, great point.

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah.

Bill Nussey:

Okay.

Jeff Cramer:

In vertically integrated markets, the utility has a self-interest in owning that generation, which that’s the way the market is set up. I’m not here to comment on whether that’s the best way to do it or not, but we believe in competition, even if the utilities involved to be competing for those generation resources, we think those should be available for customers really to decide if they’d like to have access to community solar or rooftop solar.

Bill Nussey:

So if we have somebody listening in, they want to learn more about community solar. They want to know what their options are in their state. What do they do?

Jeff Cramer:

That’s a good question. And for those that are listening saying, “Yeah, that’s me.” I’m going to say, “I’m sorry. I wish it were easier for you.” But you generally would know is the good news, if you’re in a state that has ubiquitous community solar, because you’ll probably get solicited for it as any good product. And they’ll say, “Hey, do you want to save money on your electricity bill and subscribe to community solar?”

Jeff Cramer:

But generally 20 plus states have access to solar. We have a map on our website. We can get you a link. And about half of those states have active programs. So while community solar is growing, it’s still a product that isn’t available everywhere.

Bill Nussey:

So which state is doing the best job?

Jeff Cramer:

[inaudible 00:28:09] I picked on New York because they are doing a great job. There are states like New York, Massachusetts that continue to grow their community, solar programs. Maryland just passed a bill to expand its program. Illinois is expanding its program. And then there are a number of states. This is the really exciting part for me is there’s a number of states in the Midwest in particular and California as well that are considering new programs. And a number of those states, particularly the ones in the Midwest are programs and legislation that’s being sponsored by Republicans because they want to support both competition choice and access to solar doing something that’s creating access to solar while also perhaps offering a new revenue stream for a farmer that could use that additional revenue stream.

Bill Nussey:

Well, one of the most common conversations that I found myself getting pulled into by people who are outside the industry is I love the idea of solar. I don’t really want to put it in my roof, but a bunch of us in the neighborhood want to put up a bunch of solar panels on this little field, outside the neighborhood or over top of the pool house or whatever it is that their neighborhood configuration is. So is that community solar? If they live in one of these 20 states, can they do that?

Jeff Cramer:

It depends. I wish there were, again, an easier answer. Sometimes they can participate through the community solar program and there’s a process by which they can get credits and spread those credits on each other’s electricity bills. There are other times where it’s called virtual net metering. So that’s where a customer can have a project somewhere in the community and can spread those credits to various amounts of owners.

Jeff Cramer:

So there’s a number of ways that they can do it. And that’s where there are a number of different ways to do community solar.

Bill Nussey:

Okay. All right. One detail that I don’t understand, I’m fascinated by. If I live in one of those wonderful 20 states that allow me to do community solar and I purchase some of it, first of all, am I renting it? Am I buying it? The panels, there’s a thousand panels or 500 panels.

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah, good question.

Bill Nussey:

And I buy five of them. Am I renting them? Am I buying them? Can I resell them if I buy them? And then actually what happens on my electric bill? How do I know that I’m paying-

Jeff Cramer:

Good questions.

Bill Nussey:

… for them or getting the credits? How does all that work?

Jeff Cramer:

Good questions. So I’ll start with the bad news and I’ll then give you the good news. And the bad news is that if you were a customer in 2015, and you wanted community solar, you probably had to sign a hundred pages of documents. You had to take out a $10,000 loan and you had to actually purchase your subscription. Where in the last seven years, given the living lab of a marketplace that we’ve experienced, that’s gotten far, far easier.

Jeff Cramer:

So now to the good news is that in states like in New York or in Illinois, it’s as simple as signing up for say a Netflix subscription. You enter your address, you enter your utility information and they’ll know about the size of your average consumption per month. And this is where, to me, at least as a bit of a wonk, it gets more interesting is that the community solar asset owner, the owner of the project, the financier of the project is the one that owns the project and has, say, the liability for the project.

Jeff Cramer:

You as a customer are simply a subscriber or you’re essentially leasing or are renting access to those panels. So you don’t have to take out money. You don’t have to do anything. You in fact only have to sign up for these days as low as a year of a term or less where you can sign up and you can say, “I want access.” And then you become a subscriber in that project. The asset owner is the owner of the project that puts forth the capital.

Jeff Cramer:

They take the compensation for the electricity generated and then they split those returns with themselves and with the customer. So what that looks like on the customer’s bill, there’s a couple ways. Some states there’s two bills. But in other states like in New York, there can be one bill. And in that one bill scenario, you will get your electricity bill that says, “Hey, I consumed this much. I consumed a hundred kilowatts of electricity, and that’s going to cost me $100 a month.” And then you’ll get your credit for your production of electricity, from your community solar subscription.

Jeff Cramer:

And they typically either cancel out or your community solar subscription will actually save you money. So you’ll actually end up paying less than your consumption from your electricity bill.

Bill Nussey:

So what happens if I want to buy twice as many solar panels, rent twice as many solar panels to generate twice as much power as my house uses. It seems like I can make a fortune. Then we get into the whole net metering debacle. I’m just sort of nerdy curious, how do they keep people from going crazy, limit the number of panels they can rent? Or how does that work?

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah. So it’s a limit in terms of the overall percentage of your average consumption that you can subscribe to. And fundamentally any electricity beyond what you consume, you’re not getting savings off of. You’re only getting savings off of what the maximum subscription that you can take.

Bill Nussey:

And one of the last nerdy question on this, because I love the details. So if I’m on vacation and my air conditioning is off and I’m consuming my house consumes very little power, but my community solar panels are just pumping away. Am I going to get it all wrapped up at the end of a month or is it sort of minute to minute?

Jeff Cramer:

No, it’s netted usually on a monthly basis.

Bill Nussey:

Okay. All right. This all makes sense. I need to move to one of those 20 states where I can… I like solar rooftops. In Georgia, very briefly, they made that a great deal. They did net metering for 5,000 people and they thought it would last for five years, and it was done in five or six months. Solar is really popular.

Jeff Cramer:

I have an expectation that Georgia’s actually going to get there. I think there are a lot of customers in Georgia that want access to solar. We may have another time in this interview to talk about it. But for those that are concerned about more rooftop solar or community solar on the system, ultimately the best approach to solving lowest cost and cleanest, and socially responsible is to have a portfolio of resources. And in a state like Georgia, there may be.

Jeff Cramer:

I think there’s far more than zero megawatts because there’s a couple of co-ops in Georgia that actually have community solar programs. But the point is that we’re not suggesting that the entire grid should be made up of community solar. But it should be an important component in a portfolio of resources.

Bill Nussey:

Said very diplomatically, Jeff. Thank you.

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah.

Bill Nussey:

So as I listen to you, this sounds like the most obvious, awesome idea ever, because I’m going to save a bunch of money or some money and I’m clean and I’m green. And so it checks boxes. So one would think that this would be wildly popular. Like in New York, a very large percentage of new Yorkers would have switched over to this, the moment it became available as an option to them. What’s keeping that from happening? Is it awareness? Is it capacity? Why aren’t we going just hog wild?

Jeff Cramer:

It’s not demand. It’s 100% supply.

Bill Nussey:

Really?

Jeff Cramer:

And that supply shortage is focused on two things. One, program capacity. So whether a state has a program or not. Or two, if a state has a program, but they have a limit on the amount of community solar that can go on the system. So that’s one of the factors. The other factor is you might even have that capacity to be built, and you might even have sites, agreements set with customers with the landowner, but interconnection. We’re getting back to interconnection problem. There’s an interconnection delay.

Bill Nussey:

Wah, wah, wah.

Jeff Cramer:

Yep, exactly. So that’s one of the reasons why we’ve tried to be as proactive as we can to saying, “We need to update the way interconnection and grid integration generally for small distributed energy resources is done because we’re going to need a heck of a lot more of them on the system soon.” Both because the grid needs it and because customers want it.

Bill Nussey:

Yeah. One of my favorite personal topics of the entire local energy world is batteries. Now, I have been called by many on this podcast Battery Bill. I am morally obliged to ask the question. What’s the intersection of storage batteries or other kinds of storage and community solar? Is that a thing? Is it so a few people trying it out? You think it’s going to be big? Paint the picture for us, storage plus community solar.

Jeff Cramer:

Sure. There’s sort of two pictures. One is now. One is, take 10 years from now at scale. And now the there’s tons of promise in connecting community solar with storage because you already have the point of interconnection, again, on the system. You don’t have to do that again. So you have this one resource that can inject or suck in electrons. So that’s a benefit. But the policy are not there. And the markets aren’t aren’t there yet. We have markets for things like frequency regulation in regional markets, specifically places like PJM.

Jeff Cramer:

We have ways to batteries are typically put on the system now to avoid demand charges. So what that means is if you’re a large customer and you get charged more for electricity at one point in the day and it’s sizeable. If you put a battery on your system, you can adjust when those electrons are used with a battery.

Jeff Cramer:

But beyond that, there aren’t really markets at scale yet for those batteries. So once that happens, I think we’re going to see a far more significant amount of batteries being paired with community solar. One last point would be that we have a bill that’s being considered in California right now which would pair community solar and storage. It tries to solve this problem in one fail swoop.

Jeff Cramer:

So what it does, is it creates an export rate for the community solar’s production at the times of highest need. So sometimes that might be when the community solar facility is generating electricity. Other times it might not. So by doing that, the community solar provider can best manage when it’s injecting its electrons into the system.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a great clarification for me because what you made me realize is that community solar looks like I am renting some panels and I’m getting the electrons from them, but that’s actually virtual. The person, the brave pioneering team that builds that community solar project, their reality is they have to sell those electrons into the local market one way or another. And then they take that money, take a little bit off the top for themselves and they send it to the utility to prepay my bill.

Jeff Cramer:

You got it.

Bill Nussey:

If the local market isn’t buying the resources and benefits of batteries, then there’s really no way for them to capture revenue to turn it around and lower my bill with. I like that. That’s a great clarification.

Jeff Cramer:

And even FERC at this moment, which is getting nerdy, so I’ll try to not use too much jargon.

Bill Nussey:

If you say FERC 2222, then you’re going to win. A lot of people know what that is.

Jeff Cramer:

Okay, good. Yeah, I was going to say FERC 2222 is seeking to create opportunities interstate and within regional markets for these DERs including community solar to participate, and that would solve a couple problems. One streamlining how these programs could work and revenue sources, but then two, creating clearer price signals for both generating resources and reliability resources like storage.

Bill Nussey:

So Jeff, this is a great primer. I feel like we should just transcribe some of this and put out an article on the site about what community solar means. Probably we’ll do that in addition to this podcast, but let’s take one step further into your world and tell us specifically what CCSA is doing in the world of the community.

Jeff Cramer:

Absolutely. So we are active now in a little over 20 states around the country. And the work we do is working with those policy makers with utilities, with associated stakeholders, like environmental groups, labor groups, local community groups, to create new community solar programs or expand and foster sustainable growth in existing programs. So with the education we already did on how community solar programs are created through typically state legislation and then rolled out through public utility commissions that’s all work that CCSA does to lead, whether it’s dealing with a legislator, public utility commissions or those stakeholders, or the utilities themselves.

Bill Nussey:

And CCSA recently published a white paper related to the policies and regulations impacting DERs highlighting interconnection. Here it is again, the interconnection is the big challenge. So tell us about the challenges about interconnection or the others and how you think you guys can help direct advise organizations to get around them.

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah. So we touched on this a little bit, but I think the general idea here is that when you take that analogy, we talked about earlier about the house and interconnection as more of those houses or states have more distributed solar, local solar on the system, they’re going to see more of those interconnection challenges, whether it’s like a hosting capacity, interconnection queues.

Jeff Cramer:

So we put out a paper that provides guidance to state policy makers predominantly on how they can fix those challenges. And that’s largely broken down into improved interconnection procedures, new ways to compensate utilities, so they can make new revenue streams by integrating more local solar. And then how do you fairly distribute those costs to upgrade the grid amongst the customers who benefit from those upgrades?

Jeff Cramer:

There’s a whole lot of detail behind that I can go into that gets wonky. But what we tried to do is put together for lack of a better term or roadmap for how you do it and how you address those challenges.

Bill Nussey:

Got it. Great. Well, we’ll put a link to that white paper in as well.

Jeff Cramer:

That would be great in case we have some policy makers or policy influencers listening in. You also made a point that hadn’t thought about but when the community solar customer pays their bill, some of the money is taken in to pay back the community solar and installer and operator. But little bit of that money has got to go to the utility to pay to borrow their distribution power lines. So they’re also part of where the money goes.

Jeff Cramer:

Yeah. It’s not too complicated, but it happens in a way that the solar is generated and the compensation comes from utility rate payer funds to support the generation of that facility. And then the owner operator takes its share and then splits its share with the customer of savings essentially that are garnered versus the default rate. And the key difference here between a say a community solar facility and maybe the original model of a rooftop facility is that that rate is highly negotiated with the utility.

Jeff Cramer:

And the utility still makes its money on the distribution system typically and to maintain the wires. So it’s a negotiated amount that sits somewhere between what that sort of rooftop net meter retail rate is and what an avoided cost rate is within a wholesale marketplace.

Bill Nussey:

I hope the folks listening in enjoy this detail as much as I do, but I’m super curious about… I’m a business model fan and I’m always fascinated to see how the money flows because therein lies the truth and the opportunity of any business, including community solar. So just follow the money.

Jeff Cramer:

You’re totally right about that, Bill. And the example I just offered is a summary example. It’s not a specific example because every state does it a little bit differently, frankly.

Bill Nussey:

Well, hopefully you guys can get all the states to line up and get Georgia on board, but hey, well, listen, this has been… I’ve learned so much about community solar and it’s been something that I’ve tried to make sense of as a national question, and I struggled with it. And so I feel like the veil has been lifted and I see it much more clearly now.

Bill Nussey:

So as we wrap up, one of our favorite parts of the interviews discussions is to ask our esteemed guests four lightning round questions. So we’re just going to jump right into that. Are you ready, Jeff for the lightning round?

Jeff Cramer:

I’m ready. Let’s go.

Bill Nussey:

All right.

Jeff Cramer:

Let’s do it.

Bill Nussey:

What excites you the most about being in the clean energy business?

Jeff Cramer:

Being able to direct markets to do good things for the environment and for society.

Bill Nussey:

Excellent. And I think you already answered this one, but if you could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, what would it be?

Jeff Cramer:

I would change the incentive structures to how electricity incumbents are compensated to ensure more innovation competition and faster action.

Bill Nussey:

And I’ll repeat the one you said earlier, which is a national framework rather than a state by state framework. We want both of those. So what do you think is going to be the single most important change in how we generate store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Jeff Cramer:

That’s a tough one to put a single one. I would like to say scale. We’ve largely been in a learning lab of the first 10% of renewable capacity and we’re going to triple that and it’s going to actually get interconnected and plugged in. That’s what I’d like it to be. But what is the biggest change? I think it’s going to be… I think it may in fact be a step change in the way the primary players in the electricity sector are compensated for what they do. There’s going to be a slowly changing tide of incentives and revenue streams for how the system is managed and operated.

Bill Nussey:

I actually use the phrase performance based rate making in my book a few times. Not too much. It’s not that wonky. But when you say PBR to most people, they think of that really questionable BER.

Jeff Cramer:

Yes.

Bill Nussey:

But you can also improve the way utilities are run with it too. Maybe it’s the BER, maybe it’s the policy. Anyway, last question, and maybe the most important for our audience because a lot of folks listening in want to make a difference, and they’re interested in this lens of clean energy. So when people ask you, friends, neighbors, “Hey, Jeff, I’m interested in this whole clean energy thing. I want to help the climate. What can I do individually?”

Jeff Cramer:

Call your state policymaker and say, “I want access to local solar and community solar.” If you don’t have it, that’s the single easiest way to do it. And the more calls they get, regardless of what they end up doing, whether it’s community, solar, rooftop solar, wind, whatever it is, they’re going to act with more calls. It works. So call your representative and tell them that you want access. And maybe call your utility if you’re not happy with your access and tell them that.

Bill Nussey:

Excellent. The voices matter. And thank you for reinforcing that point.

Jeff Cramer:

Yep.

Bill Nussey:

Well, Jeff, I am excited about community solar and I love living in Georgia, but this is one of the reasons not to love living here, but this is-

Jeff Cramer:

You will soon. You will soon.

Bill Nussey:

Thank you, I love that optimism. I love that.

Jeff Cramer:

I think you’re going to see a tide change there.

Bill Nussey:

Yeah. I’ve gotten to know several of our commissioners through this process and we don’t always see eye to eye, but I respect the process and they seem to listen to what their folks are telling them in the state. So if more of us in Georgia say, “Hey, we want community solar as an option,” let’s go do it. Maybe it’ll work.

Jeff Cramer:

That’s right.

Bill Nussey:

Well, listen, again, thank you. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for the great work that you and your team are doing. It matters a lot, and everyone is cheering you on.

Jeff Cramer:

Thanks so much for having us, Bill.

POST'S CATEGORIES

RELATED POSTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

SUBSCRIBE

TOPICS

RECENT POSTS