There is Only One Community Solar Bill in Pennsylvania
By: Anthony Campisi
In its second hearing on solar legislation this fall, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Consumer Affairs Committee heard from utility industry executives about HB 1970, a bill that would establish a new solar green tariff program for Pennsylvania energy consumers.
The legislation discussed in this late October session stood in contrast to the committee’s September 1 hearing on community solar legislation (HB 531) sponsored by Rep. Aaron Kaufer. While HB 1970, sponsored by Rep. Lori Mizgorski (R-Allegheny) does involve solar development, according to comments made by Edison Electric Institute representative Shelby Linton-Keddie during the hearing, HB 1970 is what is known as a “green tariff” program.
In comments submitted to the committee, Leslie Elder, Mid-Atlantic Director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA) expressed support for green tariff programs that deploy more solar energy, but opposed calling HB 1970 community solar. Said Elder, “We support HB 1970 for recognizing, and developing, a program that can help meet the overwhelming customer demand for solar. However, we strongly oppose HB 1970 being labeled a community solar program. HB 1970 is not a community solar program and should not be mistaken for one.”
Elder’s comments went on to elucidate the key differences between the community solar (HB 531) and green tariff (HB 1970) legislation. Chief among them is that HB 1970 would charge customers a premium for solar energy, while HB 531 would expand access and also save people money on their electric bills. According to Elder, HB 531 would open an entirely new solar market in Pennsylvania and generate significant economic benefits for the commonwealth: $1.8 billion in just short-term economic output, according to a recent Penn State University analysis.
Further distinctions laid out by Elder between the two bills include the following:
Community-sized projects (HB 531) versus utility-scale projects (HB 1970)
HB 1970 would authorize the creation of a green tariff program that would allow customers to purchase solar energy from large solar arrays through their utility companies. Utility-scale solar facilities often require hundreds of acres of land and average 20MW or larger in system size.
Community solar projects, on the other hand, are much smaller and located closer to the communities they serve. They can be placed on unused or underutilized farmland or on rooftops to provide an important additional source of income for family-owned farms and businesses seeking to weather unpredictable markets and diversify their revenue sources. These facilities require smaller acreage of land and are often between 1 and 5MW.
Energy savings (HB 531) versus premium energy prices (HB 1970)
Community solar programs are designed to save consumers money. They allow subscribers to receive credits on their electric bills for their share of the power produced at their community solar garden.
And the savings associated with purchasing power through a community solar project can be substantial, averaging about $30,000 per megawatt annually, according to the Penn State analysis.
Although the green tariff program authorized by HB 1970 would also expand customer access to solar, it would require subscribers to pay more for their electricity — not less.
The legislation would allow utility companies to sell solar energy to consumers at a premium despite solar being at “historically low prices,” according to testimony given by President and CEO of Duquesne Light Steve Malnight. With premium prices, many green tariff programs that have come online in other states have experienced difficulty getting customers to sign up.
At the same time, utilities can lock consumers into long-term contracts under the green tariff program.
Clear economic benefits from a new solar market (HB 531)
Because community solar installations would be spread across dozens of counties and can be located on land owned by family farmers and small businesses, these types of projects can provide a quick boost to the state economy battered by the pandemic.
In fact, according to the Penn State study, there are 235 community solar projects in 48 counties ready to generate $1.8 billion in economic benefits and create 12,000 jobs across the state once HB 531 passes.
According to Elder, community solar developers have already spent 3-4 million dollars in corporate investments in rural parts of the state, including cash payments to farmers and ranchers for land leases. Said Elder, “HB 531 will drive much-needed tax dollars into our local communities. These tax dollars, which will be paid by the community solar developers, can help fund schools, lower property tax burdens for seniors, fund critical infrastructure needs for the community, or simply be used to refill local government coffers diminished by the economic shutdown.”
It is unclear whether similar economic impacts would be generated by HB 1970, because consumers who participate would see higher costs, not cost savings, and fewer projects would be deployed in fewer communities.
While both pieces of legislation would grow renewable energy in Pennsylvania, they would do so in radically different ways. The community solar program envisioned in HB 531 expands choice, creates energy bill savings and brings with it a long list of attendant benefits: income for farmers, good-paying jobs and, according to Penn State, billions in economic impact over the life of community solar projects.
Elder concluded her comments with a plea for legislators in both the Senate and House to bring community solar legislation to a vote and do so immediately.
Said Elder, “We urge the committee to move on an opportunity that can make a significant impact today. Please move Representative Kaufer’s HB 531 [and SB 705] now to bring community solar to Pennsylvania and give our state the economic boost it so desperately needs.”