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Blazing a trail for community-based clean energy

Sign at the entrance to PVUSA. Credit: daviswiki.org/PVUSA

The City of Davis, California, is blessed with two things: an abundance of sunshine and lots of beautiful, mature trees to provide a natural refuge from it.

These trees, carefully planted by several generations of Davis' residents, helps to keep energy costs down by protecting homes and businesses from the direct heat of the sun. Unfortunately, the trees present a unique problem for Davis residents who want to utilize the sun with rooftop solar panels.

In order for Davis to be a leader in energy efficiency as well as production, they had to find a way to harness the sunlight without jeopardizing the trees. So San Francisco-based CleanPath Ventures collaborated with the City to build a small solar farm just outside the city limits. 

The farm, called Photovoltaics for Utility Scale Applications or PVUSA , is the nation's largest, and oldest community solar garden, currently serving 33 meters for the City of Davis.

Expanding On A Bright Idea

PVUSA's success gave CleanPath a great idea: why not expand it to include lots  more solar panels, and instead of just feeding the energy back into the grid, why not allow residents to purchase their own little "garden plot" of solar energy? That way, Davis could capitalize on all its extra sunshine AND avoid chopping down any of its wonderful shade trees.

In order to realize its goal, CleanPath first had to navigate through the confusing maze of government regulations that govern the energy industry.

Under existing California state law, local governments generating their own renewable energy are only authorized to provide a bill credit for electricity exported to the electrical grid by an eligible renewable generating facility, and requires the commission to adopt a rate tariff for the benefiting account.

Because this regulation would make it vitually impossible for CleanPath and the City of Davis to realize the dream of expanding the Community Solar Garden, they decided push for a total revision of the law.

SB 843 - A New Bill For Off-Site Solar

Fast forward a year, and SB 843, aka the Community-Based Renewable Energy Self-Generation Program, has been introduced by Senator Lois Wolk and is being championed by a broad coalition working together under the name "Community Solar California."

"Community Solar Gardens appeal to those--like renters, or businesses that lease space--who don't already have somewhere to install solar," explained Tom Price, director of policy for CleanPath. In a solar garden, the cost for getting started can be as low as zero. In return, you get back a smaller portion of your rate as compensation, and don't end up owning the solar panels. But in both cases, you still save money, and get your power from renewable energy."

Solar leasing has become a popular alternative for those who don't have the resources to purchase a full solar array, but it still demands an unshaded rooftop and can be pricey to maintain.

With a shared solar farm, there's no minimum cost, or up front expense. Instead, subscribers will simply agree to purchase an amount of energy, and every month the solar produced from their share will show up as a credit on their power bill.

"You'll still be a customer of your utility, and you'll still get the same excellent service, only now your power will be coming from the sun," said Price.

Currently, the Community Solar Gardens Act SB 843 is picking up a lot of steam, and many expect it to pass next year. "Once SB 843 passes, we'll be able to expand PVUSA to serve even more people with clean, affordable renewable energy," said Price.

And all the trees clapped their hands.

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