Shared Renewable Energy
Shared renewable energy programs offer customers who might be unable or unwilling to install on-site distributed generation systems the opportunity to benefit from distributed renewable energy generation. Shared renewables programs can provide access to renewable energy to customers in multi-family residences, condominiums or those with roofs incompatible with solar arrays.
States can take one of two legislative paths to authorize shared renewables—virtual net metering or community renewables programs—or they can take a hybrid approach. At least 18 states and Washington, D.C., have legislation authorizing shared renewables.
Virtual net metering expands conventional net metering to allow multiple customers, including tenants in a multi-family property or condominium owners, to offset their energy use from one or several shared distributed generation systems.
The second legislative route to shared renewable energy is through legislation authorizing community-based renewables programs or pilot projects. Also known as shared or community solar, community solar gardens or shared clean energy, these programs allow multiple customers to purchase interest in shared renewable energy systems located on-site or off-site. Participating customers are allocated benefits from the shared system through either virtual net metering or bill credits.
While the majority of shared renewables projects are solar projects, there is also a small number of wind projects operating in several states. Additionally, at least 10 of the states with shared renewables legislation include provisions to allow for additional renewable energy technologies, such as wind, biomass or geothermal, in programs.
Emerging Compensation Methods
In recent years, state legislatures have taken an active role in navigating net metering. While net metering policies have been responsible for expanding access to the benefits of renewable energy, they have generated questions of equity with regard to distributed solar systems. Originally designed to spur a nascent technology, net metering's success has led to debates on the policy's sustainability in virtually every state legislature or utility commission.
Critics argue that the economic compensation received by net metering customers unintentionally allows them to avoid compensating utilities for the cost of maintaining infrastructure and the electric grid. All electricity users pay for the grid that supports electric infrastructure through charges on their utility bill, however, since net metered customers may end up paying very low electricity bills, they inadvertently avoid these charges. Additionally, some feel distributed generation users should not be credited at the retail rate for excess electricity generation, but rather at the avoided cost or wholesale rate.
Net metering supporters contend that net metered resources provide utilities with economic benefits by supplying energy at peak times when producing and acquiring energy is most costly, reducing the need for transmission upgrades or new generation, and contribute to reliability and clean air goals.
Numerous state legislatures and public utility commissions are discussing the best way to balance customer demand for distributed generation with the impacts new technologies have on the electric power grid, including exploring ways to assess the actual costs and benefits to the utility, the grid and all customers. The increase in net metered resources, notably distributed solar, has launched a more comprehensive discussion about properly evaluating the effects and benefits of new technologies, such as energy storage, smart meters, distributed energy and energy management tools.
At least five states have implemented alternative compensation methods in place of net metering, including Arizona, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine and Nevada. While these states have implemented widely-verying alternative compensation methods, all five states have grandfathered existing customers, allowing them to continue under the previous net metering rules for a set number of years.