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Opinion: Implement the Community Renewables Energy Act

Solar thermal collectors on a building on 15th St NW

The following commentary has been submitted by Nextility, a D.C.-based solar energy and power source advocacy company.

 Community Solar in Washington D.C.
On October 1st, 2013, the DC Council voted to enact the Community Renewables Energy Act (CREA) of 2013. This bill allows renters, homeowners with shaded roofs, tenants of apartment buildings, and others, to receive the benefits of solar energy by removing some of the remaining regulatory barriers to solar. It does so by giving utility ratepayers access to virtual net-metering, which permits anyone to “subscribe” to someone else’s solar installation by investing money. Once they have done so, the electricity produced by their portion of the solar installation is credited to their monthly electric bill.
Only 25 percent of residential rooftop space in the U.S. is suitable for solar. And 60 percent of D.C.’s households rent their homes. That’s a lot of people who can’t go solar. But, this new law allows anyone in D.C. to receive the economic benefits of solar. It opens the door to clean energy for a huge new group of people.
After the law was passed in 2013, the Public Service Commission was charged with writing the regulations for how the law would be carried out in practice.
On January 30, 2015, the PSC issued its second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR), and then an Order addressing the comments filed in the first rulemaking phase.  Nextility, DC SUN, and other organizations reviewed the NOPR and noted an extreme cause for concern. 
One area of concern is the reduction of the value of the CREF Credit Rate, which determines how subscribers would be credited for their subscription to a renewable energy facility, like a solar array. Under regular net metering, you would get a full one-to-one credit for any extra electricity “your” solar panels produce. This includes all the charges you see on your Pepco bill, including generation, transmission, and distribution, and any taxes, fees, and surcharges. However, the PSC’s interpretation of CREA in its second Proposed Rulemaking would only cover generation and transmission for a community solar site. That’s about half of what you pay on your Pepco bill (and therefore you’d only be compensated for half of the solar electricity you produce).
This is a key problem because it creates a lower class of “solar citizens” – those who own homes and can put solar on their roof, versus everyone else who rents, lives in high-rise buildings, or has a shaded roof. CREA was passed in order to serve those very citizens, but the PSC’s proposed rulemaking undercuts that very purpose by reducing the value of solar to those citizens who need it most.
Current Status of D.C. Solar
Last month, the DC City Council got it right with Council Chair Phil Mendelson and ten Members signing a letter in support of enacting the Community Renewable Energy Act (CREA) Amendment. It’s a vital step to ensure solar power and other renewables are installed and generate power to the grid in the District. Community solar is intended to enable District residents and businesses to invest, and receive the benefits of solar energy on their electric bill, even if a solar system is not physically located on their property. 
The Council “expressed concern” with the Public Service Commission (PSC) delays in implementing its original 2013 plan for the city. CREA gives everyone the opportunity to benefit from solar energy: businesses, homeowners, renters – young and old, rich and poor – even those with poor credit. As the Council rightly notes, “customers are credited for delivering energy to the grid by using established program structures, formulas and caps that the Council and Commission have already approved.”
So what’s the hold-up? The legislative intent is crystal clear and was reemphasized by the Council. If the PSC cannot implement the law correctly, the Council should consider its emergency powers so we do not delay – currently vulnerable communities are not able to benefit from renewable energy, as Council notes.
There are now at least nine states that have implemented a community solar program, so this isn’t exactly a new concept. Furthermore, the District of Columbia has a long history of strong support for renewables like solar. From rooftops on churches to schools like the Cesar Chavez school where we recently financed and support (at no upfront cost) a solar installation, power can be generated for the underserved NOW.
As someone who helped start an energy company here in D.C., I know D.C. is the right place for solar. Our company, Nextility, which employs over 50 people in Washington and has over 200 solar projects completed, has been waiting 520 days to invest over $1 million in community solar projects right here in the District. I believe the Council must continue to push for action, and ensure the PSC implements community solar as intended, to help spur job growth and investment in the District, in addition to making clean power available to all District residents.
Michael Healy
The writer is Director of Policy for Nextility, a D.C.-based solar energy and power source advocacy company.
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