Do you get those flyers in the mail for “community solar farms”? Do they sound too good to be true?
I thought so, too.
That’s why I sat down with five friends here in town (Peter Lieberwirth, Gina Snyder, Dave Brown, Dave Chipman and Howie Marshall) to take a closer look, ask around, figure out how the farms work and see how much money you’d really save.
Here’s what we learned:
The good …
- Basically, community solar farms are a good idea, and they seem to be on the up and up. They’re quiet, sustainable, and friendly to God’s green earth. (It’s no wonder they’re springing up all over the country.) They’re run by privately owned firms that build new solar farms on cheap backcountry land, saving you money and helping the environment. (Remember, today’s solar power costs less than fossil-fuel power in most cases.)
- When you subscribe to a farm here in our part of Maine, they estimate your electricity usage from your old Central Maine Power bills, apportion that amount of their generation to your name, and charge you 10% to 15% less for it than CMP would’ve. This can easily save you hundreds a year. (Even if CMP raises its rates, you’ll still get your savings because the two rates move in parallel.)
- The farms’ electricity goes into Maine’s electric grid (though not literally into your home) — letting you add clean, renewable power to the state’s energy mix.
- The farms save you the trouble and (significant) upfront cost of installing solar panels of your own. (On the other hand, you’ll keep paying the farm for as long as you’re subscribed.)
- They’re great, too, when you can’t install panels — i.e., because you rent, live in an apartment, share a home, plan to move, have a smaller home, have a complicated roofline or trees, or your roof faces the wrong way.
- They’re flexible. No long-term contracts. You can sign up at any time, with no sign-up fees; change your subscription amount at any time as your electricity needs change; and cancel at any time (with, usually, 90 or 180 days’ notice) without penalties.
The bad …
- After signing up, you’ll probably have to wait several months (or longer) for your service to get started — because the farms are now in high demand, often being built at the same time, and many are in a “traffic jam” with CMP transmission lines. Also, they’ve been marketing first, signing people up, and only then building the panel arrays and flipping the switch.
- Farm billing is weirdly complicated. Here’s how it works: The farm bills you monthly for the electricity they made in your name that month. Because sunlight varies over the year, you’ll pay higher bills in summer, lower bills in winter. Meanwhile, by arrangement with the farm, CMP credits you monthly for the electricity the farm made for you in that month. It then bills you as usual for the electricity you used — minus the value of the credits you accumulated. (If your bill is less than zero, your credits are “banked,” rolling over from month to month and adding up.) So you pay two bills a month — one from the farm, one from CMP. At the end of the year, your credits are used up and your total annual electricity cost shows up, as promised, as being 10% to 15% less than it would’ve been from CMP alone.
… And the ridiculous
- The farms are not recommended for those of us on heating assistance — the very people who probably most want and need to save on their electricity — because, believe it or not, today’s assistance billing systems “can’t play” with utility credit-billing systems.
Up in Augusta, fortunately, they’re working on all of this. It’s just common sense. Over time, the farms’ waiting lines will shrink; their billing will, by law, become uniform and easy to understand; and they’ll be recognized even more widely as a good thing for many. As a friend of mine says, “Enjoying the benefits of a community solar farm should be as clear, clean and easy as streaming a movie.” He’s right.
They’ll get there eventually.
Meanwhile, if you do sign up with a farm, be sure to ask in detail about (1) the wait time and (2) how you’ll be billed!
To learn more, check here: tinyurl.com/2p85k6ue.
G.T. Simonson is a writer from New York City living in Harpswell since 1992. Questions about community solar farms? Contact George anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.