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The Science of the City: How 35 local investors helped pioneer community solar

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By PAUL RUFFINS

An important innovation in solar energy for producing both electricity and hot water was pioneered right here along the Route 1 Corridor.

 In 2008, a group of several dozen local residents, including about a half dozen professors from the University of Maryland, met to form a corporate entity, the University Park Community Solar (UPCS) LLC, that would enable investors to finance and own solar projects at remote locations and still receive the financial benefits, including tax rebates. They also laid plans to establish the nation’s first community-initiated solar power system at the University Park Church of the Brethren.

The phrase “going solar” usually brings to mind physical structures such as photovoltaic solar panels. College Park has two city-installed solar arrays — one at the College Park Youth and Family Services Center and a second on the roof of the garage at the Department of Public Works — which, together, produce 62 kilowatt-hour (kWh), or the equivalent of about six or eight residential systems. Hyattsville is also installing solar lighting, both in Hyatt Park and in the 38th Avenue Park Fitness Court.

On a residential level, most homeowners can only afford solar because of the regulatory and financial structures that make it financially feasible. While the county’s clean energy grant program does not cover solar at this time, there are other incentives, including the county’s $5,000/50% renewable energy tax credit, Maryland’s Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) and the 30% federal tax credit, which homeowners can leverage to make solar accessible.

Perhaps more importantly, Pepco, our local electricity utility, implements net metering, which requires the utility to buy back the excess solar power a system generates.

 And, homeowners can lease solar systems and have them installed at no cost because SRECs and other incentives can be bought and sold. In Maryland, both of these developments were greatly boosted by the UPCS. The U.S. Department of Energy lists the corporation as one of the nation’s earliest and most successful community solar initiatives. 

Community solar is important because only about 25% to 27% of American homes are good candidates for traditional solar panels. The rest have roofs that are the wrong size, face the wrong direction, or are shaded by trees or buildings. Community solar programs enable homeowners whose dwellings are not suitable for solar arrays to leverage the financial and environmental benefits of solar power generated at another location. These programs can be set up by utility companies, private investors or nonprofit organizations.

UPCS’s founders put a lot of effort into deciding how to structure their organization. “At first, we considered forming a nonprofit because some of us were more concerned with promoting clean energy than making money,” David Brosch, a local environmental activist who helped organize and lead the initiative, said. “But with the help of a grant and a lot of pro bono legal advice, we decided to form an LLC because it’s easier to raise money if investors can expect a reasonable return.”

 Another advantage of forming an LLC, as opposed to a nonprofit, was that many of the incentives to install renewable energy systems came in the form of federal and local tax credits, which nonprofits can’t leverage. While the Church of the Brethren was an ideal candidate for rooftop solar panels, as a nonprofit, it could not have taken advantage of these incentives. 

“Fortunately, our church has a large roof facing the right direction,” said Kim McDowell, pastor of the church back in 2008. “We had to invest some money in putting new shingles on the roof before the panels were installed, but that was pretty much our only upfront cost.”

 The 35 members of UPCS invested $1,000 to $7,000 each, for a total of about $135,000, to purchase the 99 solar panels that the project called for. The array, which was installed in 2010, generated approximately 22.7 kWh of electricity. UPCS sold the electricity to the church at a slight profit, which was still less than what Pepco would have charged for standard electrical service. UPCS also received 22.7 Maryland SRECs, which were worth about $350 per kWh, or $7,945, in 2010, and a 30% federal rebate, which — through a special program — was paid in cash rather than as a tax credit. According to the Wilson Center, a nonprofit chartered by Congress, the UPCS’s structure, contracts and power purchase agreement have been replicated by many other groups across the country.

One of UPCS’s greatest accomplishments was helping to reform Pepco’s net metering agreement. On bright summer days, the panels at the Church of the Brethren produced about 25% more electricity than the church used, and the excess was fed back to Pepco for free. With the help of then-state Sen. Paul Pinsky, the group successfully lobbied the Maryland Legislature to amend the Maryland Public Service Commission’s rules to require Pepco to buy excess power back at a fair rate. In 2021, the LLC sold the system to the church on favorable terms. As McDowell said, “For the church, this entire experience has been a wonderful blessing.”

Many of the same investors also proved the economic feasibility of installing solar hot water at a for-profit business, Franklin’s Restaurant. This worked because photovoltaic panels can convert about 24% of the solar radiation into electricity, but solar water systems can convert about 70% into heat. The installation was supervised by Albert Nunez, who explained that the system circulates a mixture of water and antifreeze through 11 large, black solar collectors on Franklin’s roof, and into four 125-gallon tanks that preheat the cold municipal water from about 45 F to about 90 F. 

“The savings come because Franklin’s gas water heater only has to raise the water from 90 to 125 degrees,” Nunez said.

  Owner Mike Franklin explained that the system is saving a little money and reducing the restaurant’s carbon footprint. However, the restaurant uses so much hot water that it might take a few dozen panels to substantially reduce its gas usage, and there just isn’t enough space on the roof. 

“But the real value is more than financial,” Franklin said. “It’s been a true community effort that shows what’s possible.”      


Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and a professor of curiosity.

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