Have you ever heard our U.S. states referred to as "laboratories of democracy"? It's a metaphor that political scientists and occasionally policymakers like to use to describe the situation created in federal systems whereby states "experiment" with policies and provide signals and feedback to the federal government about the viability, desirability and effectiveness of said policies. Well that is sort of what's happening in the case of the community solar gardens idea. Except in this case, the federal government might even take the experiment out of the democracy lab in Colorado before that state hasn't even had time to pass it, let alone study its impacts and effectiveness.
With U.S. Senator from Colorado Mark Udall Wednesday unveiling the SUN Act, a bill that would extend solar incentives to group-owned solar installations, the community solar garden concept has gone from relative obscurity into legislative darling in just a matter of months.
Taken at its most basic level, the new rules would open up solar investing to way more people than ever before. People who previously thought they could not own solar panels (or a portion of them) because they live in an apartment, condominium or do not have a viable solar resource. And that increased access to the tax benefit is a good thing.
But left unchecked, the proliferation of community solar gardens could also contribute to 'energy sprawl.' Tom Konrad explains the problem (with the Colorado bill) at Clean Energy Wonk:
"My greatest concern with the bill is not that it will cause a move towards large installations, but that it will lead to more ground-mounted installations taking up open space, contributing to Energy Sprawl. No matter what you think about the economics of photovoltaics, one advantage that they have over almost every other type of electricity generation (both fossil and renewable) is that they can be placed on otherwise unused rooftops and other structures, giving a use to otherwise wasted space. Only energy efficiency and conservation have less physical impact on the environment than rooftop solar..."
"Any law which makes solar more likely to be ground-mounted than rooftop is a step in the wrong direction. I think the bill should be amended to prohibit CSGs from being ground-mounted, effectively limiting them to large rooftops and other structures such as awnings for parking lots."
This strikes me as perhaps one of the reasons Udall has opted to restrict the tax benefit to homeowners, not renters, which is not the case in the Colorado bill where renters could still take advantage of the incentive as long as they could substantiate a connection between their property and the shared solar array. People would then essentially own shares in the installation, shares that the Colorado bill would allow you to sell should you move out of the utility's coverage area.
What do you think? Should Community Solar Gardens be open to not just owners but also renters or would that open up a whole new can of worms that our federalist laboratories of democracy might have trouble sorting out.
Photo: OregonDOT via flickr/Creative Commons