by Rachel Ehrman
A palpable sense of pride emanates from people who live in rural towns. Untouched nature and thriving family farms are cherished rarities in Massachusetts. Protecting the integrity of such communities, while ensuring their constituents have access to local, renewable energy, is a delicate – yet important – challenge that E4TheFuture is ready to tackle.
Installing community solar on barn rooftops brings renewable energy to remote and rural communities. This approach reduces policy and permitting hurdles, supports farmers, and helps to protect the visual integrity of landscapes. E4TheFuture is piloting this solution with the Tyringham Clean Energy Cooperative, an opt-in cooperative that provides its members with education, energy efficiency services and discounted electricity bills through renewable energy generation.
The first step toward reducing energy costs is to make Tyringham’s buildings as efficient as possible. By partnering with the local utility, we are working to increase Mass Save® participation by connecting cooperative members directly with the program. While the community takes action to increase energy efficiency, we are working to bring Tyringham even more savings through barn roof community solar.
Barn owners whose rooftops are structurally sound, unshaded and properly oriented host community solar panels at no cost to the owner. Cooperative members can sign up for discounted electricity via credits (“net metering” credits) that appear directly on members’ utility bills. Tyringham will serve as a model to empower rural communities across Massachusetts to take a local, affordable and collaborative approach to “going clean.”
Why barn roof community solar?
A south-facing roof located on a three-phase electrical transmission line, and with space to host a 20-25 kilowatt (kW) solar array can offer significant benefits. These advantages in general are true for any rural Massachusetts town, and many are true in other states.
Utilities in Massachusetts surpassed their allowances to grant net metering compensation for renewable energy projects, and new projects are subject to long waiting lists. Additional allowances will not be made until new policy is enacted. However, projects 25 kW and under are exempt from these net metering caps and are eligible to receive net metering credits for generation.
Under current rules, multiple renewable energy projects over 25 kW may not be sited on the same parcel as, or on an adjacent parcel to, an existing project. Projects under 25 kW are exempt from this rule, per Massachusetts regulation.
In Spring/Summer 2018, solar projects in Massachusetts will be transitioning from the SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Certificate) II program to SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target). SRECs are tradable certificates that represent all the clean energy benefits of electricity generated from a solar electric system. As part of the SREC II program phase-out, SREC incentives for community solar projects over 25 kW that are not mechanically complete by March 31, 2018 will decline. Projects 25 kW and under, however, can retain the same SREC incentive values even after March 31st.
Solar projects that are operationally complete after SMART regulations are in place will be rewarded additional compensation for building-mounted solar.
Projects up to 25 kW on three-phase lines are subject to a shorter, less expensive “simplified” interconnection process. Such projects not located in a spot or area network, which are uncommon in rural communities, are not subject to an interconnection application fee. Projects over 25 kW must follow the expedited or standard interconnection process, with application fees that range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on system size. Expedited/standard applicants are also subject to additional reviews and studies, not required for the simplified process. Additionally, there is no fee for a Witness Test for simplified projects; while the Witness Test for expedited/standard projects will incur a fee. Witness testing is a requirement for larger systems whereby the system owner pays for a utility representative to witness the commissioning of a system and test the customer-utility communication system (typically, the meter).
Smaller projects also face a significantly decreased risk for triggering a costly electrical grid upgrade by the utility. Many circuits can withstand an increase by one (or several) 25 kW projects, whereas larger projects could warrant infrastructure changes, including but not limited to transformers and substation upgrades. The cost of these upgrades can make a project economically unfeasible.
Structural, Accessibility & Visual Concerns
Barn rooftop conditions vary. If a barn is in adequate shape and has an appropriate surface (e.g., not a slate roof), a solar array can often be mounted without issue. Barns are often built using heavy structural components that can resist any weight or uplift forces that solar panels might create. Most barn structures are visible and accessible, an advantage if physical improvements are needed.
Ground-mounted solar arrays require fencing around the entire system, as well as an access road for maintenance and repair visits. Each of these elements can cost $10,000 or more to construct. These expenses are avoided by opting for roof-mounted systems.
Because rooftop solar does not require construction and associated land disturbances, permitting requirements are significantly reduced. For example, Conservation Commissions do not typically require approval for rooftop solar, and projects do not need to worry about costly environmental assessments, or assessing whether a project disturbs protected wetlands or endangered species territories.
Unlike large ground-mount arrays that require tree clearing, fencing and access roads rooftop arrays on barns are minimally invasive, and do not impede farms’ visual aesthetic or use otherwise productive crop land or pasture. Barn rooftop solar allows farmers to use the land they own for purely agricultural purposes, an important consideration for small New England farms.
Under this pilot cooperative, farmers can receive lease payments for allowing the cooperative to use their barn roof. As an added bonus, evidence has shown that rooftop solar can protect roofs from damage.
Overall, there is minimal cost difference between barn rooftop and ground-mounted arrays. While economies of scale can reduce the cost of solar installations, when factoring the additional costs for ground-mount arrays, including permitting, interconnection, tree clearing, fencing and access roads, we have found that the difference in total price between larger ground-mount arrays and multiple 25 kW rooftop arrays can be minimal; if not less expensive to develop the rooftop solar.
For all the reasons listed above, E4TheFuture is eager to test this model in Tyringham. Barn roof solar might just turn out to be an ideal way to help save our farms, protect the environment, and enable rural communities to access renewable energy.
–Rachel Ehrman is an Energy Projects Coordinator at E4TheFuture.