When missions align, community-based organizations can lead the way on community solar in Texas, new study finds

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September 22, 2020

"This roadmap represents a promising deployment strategy for solar in Texas." —Varun Rai, LBJ School

(Texas)­ — Affordable solar energy can create significant benefits to energy consumers, but Texas is behind the nation in bringing these benefits to all energy consumers. Community-based organizations can help lead the way, according to a new roadmap for community solar in Texas from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Solar power reduces water scarcity, mitigates climate change, curbs pollution, and can lead to better health outcomes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And increasingly, solar can save money for those who can afford to adopt it. But solar energy is not accessible to many households and communities in Texas. According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, by 2018, only 25% of residential solar installations in Texas belonged to households in the bottom 50% of income. Community solar allows any energy consumer—from individual households to community centers to industrial customers—to work together to capture the benefits of solar without having to finance the solar project upfront themselves or to install any equipment on their individual roofs. While community solar is taking off in a few states, Texas has a relatively small market compared to the rest of the country. But as one of the sunniest states in the nation, the potential for community solar in Texas is large.

"This roadmap represents a promising deployment strategy for solar in Texas," said Varun Rai, the study’s lead author and an associate dean for research at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. "If scaled, this could create significant local economic and environmental benefits."

University researchers undertook a two-year study to investigate how scaling up community solar could make solar energy more accessible across Texas. The researchers found that activating community-based organizations is a key step toward this goal. Learning from the experiences of other states, the researchers found that scaling up community solar is difficult to coordinate between project developers, electric utilities, financers and participating customers. However, community-based organizations can act as key liaisons between these different entities on behalf of their communities, so the benefits of solar flow more readily across Texas.

The research team found that when missions aligned between community-based organizations and community solar, groups like churches, schools and community development councils got involved. Churches and other places of worship are particularly well-positioned to expand the benefits of solar to Texas residents because of their access to land and rooftops, and because of their close connection to communities. Plus, they are spread throughout Texas.

"Community solar projects and programs vary tremendously across the country," said Gabriel Chan, assistant professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. "To be successful, community solar efforts need to be tailored to the specific circumstances of the communities they hope to benefit—and this is done best when communities themselves play a key role in shaping projects."

Community solar has proliferated around the country over the past five years. Last year, it was one of the fastest-growing segments for solar, and is expected to power as many as 650,000 homes nationally in the next five years. This has been spurred by 20 states and the District of Columbia, where lawmakers have passed legislation to require community solar programs.

However, Texas does not have these top-down policies.

"Instead, this report focuses on community and market-driven activity to drive the development of community solar in Texas," said Ariane Beck, a research fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and one of the lead researchers on the study.

To expand community solar in Texas, researchers saw a need for:

  • More standardized policies and information to open markets;
  • Increased consumer awareness of community solar;
  • Additional outreach and education to help community-based organizations understand how the benefits of solar align with their goals;
  • Examples of viable business models across different regions of Texas;
  • Identifying low-cost and desirable locations for community solar project sites; and
  • Identifying anchor subscribers like large businesses to reach economies of scale that can keep costs down for residential customers.

Community-based organizations have specific capabilities that can unlock community solar in Texas. The research team identified functions that will be important to overcome barriers to development, like education, advocacy, facilitating project siting, organizing customers to participate in projects, and even providing technical and financial services. Further, involving community-based organizations leads to better outcomes for projects, programs and policies.

"South Union CDC-The STEM Foundation is focused on 'Building Minds' for a home,” said Efrem Jernigan, president of the South Union Community Development Corporation, a community-based organization in Houston, Texas. South Union CDC, one of the first in Texas to participate in community solar, has an on-site solar agricultural farm and outdoor solar classroom for elementary and middle-school students.

"Our Sunnyside Energy Solar Farm and Ag Hub will provide the 'sunshine' needed to drive economic and workforce development to keep people in their homes," Jernigan said.

Researchers also identified pathways to creating the policy, stakeholder and market environments necessary to activate and scale community solar in Texas for long-term success. Using a bottom-up, market-driven approach, the roadmap prioritizes three strategies to activate community solar in Texas: statewide coalition building; market-specific community activation and technical assistance; and regional knowledge and resource building.

Download the report.

This research was supported by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation and the Meadows Foundation.

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