In Connecticut, low-income customers will see solar savings appear on bills

William Byers / Flickr / Creative Commons

A community solar array.

Under new rules, utilities will identify customers who qualify and automatically enroll them for shared solar projects.

Correction: Mitch Gross is a spokesperson for Eversource. An earlier version of this story misspelled his name.

Utilities — not solar developers — will be tasked with signing up lower-income customers under final rules for a Connecticut shared solar program.

The model, recently adopted by state regulators, is meant to simplify the subscription process and better protect consumers while improving access to solar savings for low- to moderate-income households.

The utilities Eversource and United Illuminating will identify low- to moderate-income ratepayers in their service territories who meet the criteria for shared solar projects and automatically enroll them. The customers will simply receive a credit on their monthly bill for the electricity produced by their share of the project. 

Customers will also have the right to opt out at any time. 

“I think the intent was that because the utilities already have some insight into which customers qualify for income-eligible programs that it would be easier to put that responsibility on them,” said Isabelle Hazlewood, manager of market development at the Connecticut Green Bank.

Shared solar — or as Connecticut’s model is officially known, the Shared Clean Energy Facility Program — is a way of expanding access to solar to people who can’t otherwise get it. These might include people who live in rental units, have roofs that are too shaded or facing the wrong way, or who simply can’t afford installation costs. 

Residents and businesses subscribe to an installation in their area. The energy generated is fed into the electric grid, and subscribers receive a credit for their share. 

The state statute authorizing Connecticut’s program largely limits access to low- and moderate-income households, small businesses, state and municipal entities and commercial customers. 

The program is capped at 25 megawatts of solar per year for six years. Projects must be between 100 kilowatts and 4 megawatts in size.

The opt-out enrollment model adopted by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority in December was proposed by Eversource. It is substantially different from what the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection proposed to regulators last summer. Their plan tasked solar project developers with the job of going door-to-door to find subscribers. 

But because the state has had problems with the tactics used by some third-party electrical suppliers seeking to sign on new customers, the agency “crafted many, many pages of requirements and regulations directed to the project developers,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. 

“At the end of the day, it was so onerous, from our perspective, that it really would have chilled interest from developers in participating,” he said.

Transferring the sign-up process to the utilities eliminates consumer protection concerns and streamlines the subscription process, he said. 

How the utilities can best identify the qualifying households has yet to be determined. 

“This program is still being developed and we don’t expect it to be available in Connecticut until mid to late 2021, at the earliest,” said Mitch Gross, a spokesperson for Eversource. “We’re continuing to work with PURA and low-income advocates to create a program that not only benefits participants, but is fair to all of our customers.”

The utility has proposed a similar opt-out model in  New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where solar companies have complained about the difficulty in identifying customers who qualify for low-income solar programs.

In regulatory filings, Eversource noted that those states have low-income utility rates that make it easier to identify income-qualified customers. Connecticut does not have a similar rate structure, so the utility said it plans to “leverage qualification” through the state’s various low-income energy programs. 

The program rules specify that 20% of enrollees in each project must be low-income customers (defined as earning less than 80% of the area median income). Another 20% must be small businesses. And 40% can be some combination of low- to moderate-income households, affordable housing facilities, or nonprofits providing assistance to low-income individuals.

The remaining 20% is to be made available by voluntary enrollment.

Hazlewood said removing the burden of managing customers from developers should lower bid prices for the projects. 

“And it could also potentially allow more local contractors to participate because they won’t have to have that capacity with subscriber management,” she said. 

Connecticut has a shared solar pilot program in place, but only one of the three projects procured for that pilot is operational so far: a 1.6 megawatt project in the town of Bloomfield. Sixty percent of the output is reserved for the town’s public school district. Clean Energy Collective, a shared solar company based in Colorado, developed the project and marketed the typical household savings as about $100 a year over the 20-year life of the program.

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