Simply Living is thrilled to announce that the Comfest grants committee awarded the People’s Solar Project funds this year!
The People’s Solar Project is a project to create a demonstration community solar and microgrid project that will generate 5 MW of solar energy to power 80 homes, five churches and two city schools in a 300-acre area on Cooke Road. Eventually the Cooke Road Solarhood, as the project is called, will include a resilience hub with energy storage, an attractive solar park, and an Energy Academy.
See a short interview with People’s Solar Project director Art Yoho here:
How will this project get done?
Currently in Ohio, community solar is difficult to set up in territory served by an investor-owned utility such as AEP, because the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has not clarified regulations and Ohio has not passed enabling legislation. However, municipal utilities are not subject to the same limitations and can do community solar and other experimental projects. One example of a municipal utility solar project is the 18-acre, 4.3 MW solar array and 7 MW storage system in Minster, Ohio, which powers much of the town including a Dannon yogurt factory.
Columbus is one of 80 cities in Ohio that has a municipal utility — the Columbus Division of Power. It is one of the largest municipal utilities in the state, serving more than 12,000 industrial, commercial and residential customers across the city. The Cooke Road Solarhood is in the Division of Power’s service area, and project leaders are actively working with the city to set up a power purchase agreement so that the Division of Power can facilitate this community solar project.
Community solar is not something the city of Columbus has taken on — yet. But we have every reason to believe they are moving in that direction. First, the Division of Power is committed to seeking out renewable energy. The division currently purchases 20% of its power, or about 180,000 MWh, from renewable energy, and their green power commitment will increase to 50% starting in 2023.
The city is actively looking for local sources of renewable energy. For example, this year they allocated funding to repair the O’Shaughnessy hydro plant near Dublin so that it could begin generating 5 MW of hydro energy for the Division of Power. The city invites renewable energy generators who want to sell power to the city to register as an official vendor on the Division of Power’s website. If we get funding to build the prototype for the People’s Solar Project, that is what we intend to do.
Further, the city’s draft Climate Action Plan contains action steps that include setting up three microgrid solar plus storage projects by 2030. We believe these projects can be set up much more quickly and want to demonstrate that with the People’s Solar Project. A grant from Comfest will allow us to purchase the materials needed to create the prototype “SolPole,” or solar tree that holds 10 solar panels. These SolPoles will provide the bulk of the energy generated in the Solarhood.
Finally, we have already met with Columbus City Council member Emmanuel Remy, who happens to live a few doors down from the site of the Cooke Road Solarhood. As chair of the City Council’s Environment Committee, Remy is supportive of community solar projects in general and this one in particular. Remy was one of the architects of Columbus’s Community Choice Aggregation initiative and recently held a hearing on the Climate Action Plan. We believe he will act as a champion for using the city’s Division of Power to sponsor local community solar projects.
If we are successful in working with the city to set up the Cooke Road Solarhood, this community solar project will be a model for other community solar projects that can be set up throughout Columbus. We are particularly interested in creating community solar projects in the opportunity neighborhoods of Columbus.
Community solar is an alternative to rooftop solar. Many people do not realize that 75% of homes are not suitable for rooftop solar for a variety of reasons: the roof may face the wrong direction to get adequate sun, the home may be shaded by large trees the owners do not want to cut down, the occupants may be in a rental home or apartment where the landlord would have to pay for solar panels, or even if they own their own home, they cannot afford the up-front cost of a solar system.
Community solar addresses this problem by bringing together several people in one neighborhood or area of town to go in together on a solar facility, with each household or business using only a portion of the power generated. As a result, community solar is much more affordable than rooftop solar systems, providing greater resilience and carbon-free emissions at about half the cost.
The size, shape, and overall look of a community solar project can be adapted to the needs of each specific neighborhood. The Cooke Road Solarhood is designed to fit into open space behind the Columbus Global Academy, Columbus Garden School, Christian Assembly, Church of the Nazarene and several homes along both sides of East Cooke Road between Maize Road and Karl Road.
Other community solar projects would look different depending on the neighborhood. We are especially interested in setting up community solar projects in the six neighborhoods identified by the recent Franklin County Energy Study as having unacceptably high energy burdens — where people pay too high of a percentage of their household income on energy. The average energy burden in the United States is 3.5%, but people pay 11% in Franklinton, 8% in Linden and King-Lincoln, 7% in Hilltop and Weinland Park, and 6% in Old Towne East.
At the heart of these community solar projects is the SolPole solar tree. A SolPole is designed to mount 10 solar panels with minimal resources and maximum adaptability, making it possible for more locations to benefit from low-cost zero emission local energy generation. The SolPole creates a strong but beautiful way to generate community solar energy through construction of an attractive solar park.
Additional advantages of the SolPole include ease of maintenance and occasional cleaning of the panels, which is made possible by rotating the array to ground level when needed. The array can adjust its angle for better seasonal efficiency and future plans are to enable daily sun tracking for further improvements in efficiency.
What need does the project address?
This project addresses two critical needs: decarbonization and climate justice. As you may know, the world’s climate scientists have said we must cut carbon emissions almost in half by 2030 if we are to have hope of a livable planet. Moving Columbus residents and businesses to 100% renewable energy is a critical part of the solution. Columbus is the 14th-largest city in the country in the sixth-highest carbon state, so it is critical that we do our part to address the climate crisis.
Although the city of Columbus recently passed a ballot initiative to move most residents and businesses to 100% renewable energy, this applies only to customers of the aggregation utility supplier, AEP. It does not apply to customers of the Columbus Division of Power, which currently purchases most of its energy supply from American Municipal Power. AMP’s energy mix is almost entirely from coal and methane gas derived chiefly from fracking. We want to move as many Division of Power customers as possible to 100% renewable energy through community solar instead.
At the same time as we lower carbon emissions in Columbus, we must also consider energy justice. The city’s aggregation initiative is committed to making energy investments in the opportunity neighborhoods of Columbus, where people have high energy burdens. If we can create a prototype community solar project that provides energy for a lower cost than either rooftop solar or AMP, that’s a model the Division of Power can replicate across many low income and communities of color in Columbus.
Art Yoho, People’s Solar Project Director, firstname.lastname@example.org