FAQ on Community-Owned Solar and Public Power Utilities

FAQ on Community-Owned Solar and Public Power Utilities

A Campaign by Rochester for Energy Democracy (R.E.D) of Metro Justice

Question: How much will we save on our energy bills from community solar?

Answer: Your energy costs should decrease by 20%, possibly more. Community ownership of the solar panels means that you benefit from the sale of generated solar energy to the utility.  You can then use that income to pay administration, maintenance, and any potential loan costs. The community can decide what to do with surpluses. We are currently working with a solar engineer to determine exact cost savings based on energy usage in a specific neighborhood and the initial size of the solar array we will build.

Question: How much will we save on our energy bills from a public utility?

Answer: According to the American Public Power Association, residential customers of public power utilities pay a national average of 13% less than customers of an investor-owned utility. Specific savings for Rochester will have to be calculated. However, we know that RG&E must charge rates that guarantee its investors a 9% profit margin. In 2018, that profit was $595 million. Thus, we can confidently say that with a public utility, Rochester residents would not have to pay rates that ensure an enormous profit margin for investors, which would reduce overall rates. Furthermore, Fairport residents have a public electric utility and pay about 30% less on average than Rochester residents pay RG&E. Lastly, public power utilities provide more reliable service and reinvest revenue back into the community. This reinvestment can be hometown jobs, public school funding, or whatever the community finds valuable.

Question: What is the process to establish a public utility in Rochester instead of RG&E? 

Answer: According to NYS Law, Rochester residents would have to vote for public acquisition of the utility via referendum during an election or special election. If successful, the city would purchase utility infrastructure from RG&E. An elected board, community power cooperative, or a city-appointed board would then administer the public utility. 

Question: How big of a solar farm will we need? 

Answer: Based on some initial calculations by a solar engineer in R.E.D., a neighborhood with about 1300 residential properties would need about a 10 megawatt solar farm to power 100% of its energy needs. Due to the massive construction costs and space requirements for such a large array, we will start with a solar farm that meets a lower percentage of energy needs to begin a shift away from RG&E and lowering bills. We can then gradually expand the size of the solar farm. It is also important to note that community-owned solar alone cannot meet the needs of a 100% green transition in home energy and maximum reduction in our energy bills. We will try to meet as much of the energy needs as possible of PLEX residents through community-owned solar. Ultimately, though, public utilities have more resources to expand renewable energy infrastructure, including wind and hydro, while keeping costs low. This is why it is critical that we also organize to replace RG&E with a public utility.  

Question: Who will build the solar farm?

Answer: R.E.D, composed of Metro Justice and participating residents of your community, will oversee hiring a solar developer to build the solar farm. We will require the company use union labor, and are also open to discussing ways to create jobs for people in the community to build the solar farm. 

Question: How will we pay to build the solar farm?

Answer: R.E.D, composed of Metro Justice and participating residents of your community, has identified several possible avenues for funding at no upfront cost to the community. One option is receiving a grant through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s “Solar for All” program or “NY Sun” program. We could also search for other grant opportunities. Grassroots fundraising is yet another. 

Question: Where will the solar panels be?

Answer: The optimal space for the panels will need to be decided based on maximizing sunlight and minimizing intrusiveness. One idea is putting them in a parking lot, which would provide covered parking, as well as use the open space to collect solar energy! Other ideas include cleaning up and using brownfields, re-purposing zombie lots, or unused rural space. 

Question: Who will run the solar farm?

Answer: As the solar farm is built, the exact details of ongoing administration will be hammered out by the community. However, the basics entail forming or designating nonprofit “special purpose entities” to own and administer the solar panels. These entities could be Metro Justice, your neighborhood organization, or a different democratically elected body by your community. 

Question: Will this change how power is delivered to my home?

Answer: Community-owned solar itself will not. Energy generated by the solar panels will be sold to RG&E and they will still deliver it to your home using the infrastructure they always have. If we succeed in establishing a public utility in Rochester, the delivery of energy and ownership of the grid will shift to the city or another community entity. 

Question: How is this different from existing “community solar” services?

Answer: While they are still better than fossil fuels and cheaper than RG&E, most current “community solar” services are owned and operated as private businesses. Thus, they provide more limited savings on energy bills and less participation from the community than community-owned solar. If you subscribed to such a service, you typically pay the solar company 5-10% less than you would pay RG&E for the portion of your home energy that came from the solar array. Some plans have confusing details, hidden costs, minimum terms, and/or cancellation fees as well.

Question: What about Community Choice Aggregates (CCAs)?

Answer: CCAs can be a good stop gap on the road to zero carbon emissions, community power, and lower energy costs. They give consumers more choice to buy into renewable energy. CCA’s utilize NYS incentives and leverage the combined purchasing power of all city residents to provide substantial rate reductions. They give consumers the choice to buy into renewable energy. Most renewable energy at the moment, however, is owned and generated by profit companies, and other energy companies are not transitioning to renewable energy fast enough. In the long-term, then, CCAs themselves do not address the issue of sky-rocketing rates for energy itself, sky-rocketing rates that utilities charge us to deliver that energy to our homes, and the mismanagement of grid infrastructure that private utilities are notorious for. In fact, California just uncovered that the major cause of the fires that swept the state this past summer were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric (the private utility for much of northern California) not maintaining the grid adequately for decades while paying its investors millions in dividends and its CEO millions in compensation. Instead of repairing the grid, PG&E is filing for bankruptcy, which could leave hundreds of thousands of residents in Northern California without power. 

Leaving our energy economy in the hands of private energy corporations and utilities that we have no oversight over is inherently risky. Thus, the long-term solution is making energy a public good not sold for profit, and making utilities public. 

Question: Why solar? Why not wind or hydro power?

Answer: Wind and hydroelectric ARE superior to solar as far as environmental impact. Their buy in however is much more expensive and their scale more massive. This makes it difficult for them to be the first renewable energy project for communities, both logistically and financially. Solar is still far and away better than fossil fuels, and is inexpensive enough to be a good first step for neighborhoods like our’s to creating community owned energy assets and start a green transition. Hopefully we can expand to wind and hydro eventually. Furthermore, Metro Justice in partnership with the statewide Energy Democracy Alliance, is considering legislation for the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to expand wind and hydro power generation. NYPA is far more equipped than our emerging community organizing effort to expand wind and hydro power for our homes in a way that is affordable, at scale, and fast. 

Question: What is the timeline for this project?

Answer: This project is in the initial planning and basebuildling phase. It will be at least a year before installation of the solar panels begins and the first concrete steps towards a public utility materialize. 

How do I get involved?

Answer: Contact Mohini Sharma, Lead Organizer at Metro Justice at (585) 397-3534 or [email protected].


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