In 2015, the Solsmart designee city of Burlington, Vermont, became one of the first cities in the United States powered by 100% renewable energy. The city’s 42,000 residents get their power from Burlington Electric using a combination of sources including biomass, wind, hydroelectric, and solar. Burlington’s main source of energy primarily comes from a hydropower dam due to the city’s proximity to the mouth of the Winooski River.
Although Burlington is one of the first cities to go 100% renewable, it has no natural environmental advantage that sets it apart. In an interview with PBS, Taylor Rickets, Environmental Science professor at University of Vermont, says, “It’s not a lot windier here, or a lot more rivers here, and certainly not a lot sunnier here than lots of parts of the U.S. It was just a bunch of decisions made over ten years or more to get toward renewable energy.” One such policy decision was to pursue SolSmart designation, a national designation program designed to encourage best practices to reduce soft cost barriers to solar adoption.
Burlington was awarded SolSmart Bronze designation in 2016. To become a Bronze community, the city created an online permitting checklist, increasing transparency for community members and solar installers. They also worked to identify zoning restrictions that intentionally or unintentionally inhibited solar development. Their SolSmart application also included how they integrated solar into relevant local plans, like a new utility-scale solar array on the roof of the Burlington International Airport.
A New Way to Create Solar Communities
Although hydropower is the predominant way that Burlington gets energy, there are many solar energy opportunities in the city. One organization that has set out to bring innovative solar energy solutions to local communities is the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC,) a sustainable energy company focused on energy efficiency, clean transportation, and renewable energy. Opening in 1986, the company focuses on helping businesses, governments, and utility services with creating clean, efficient energy systems.
One of VEIC’s subsidiaries, Sun Shares, brings the concept of community solar to the employer/employee benefit sector. Their model is designed to enable employees of all income ranges and housing circumstances to opt into solar energy programs. They do not need to install panels, invest their own money, or enter long-term solar contracts. Because of this flexibility, low- and moderate-income (LMI) households have increased access to solar photovoltaics, a service that has often been out of reach.
The Sun Shares Model
Sun Shares requires three primary roles for a successful project: capital investors, employer/employee members, and electric utility. To start off the program, capital investment is required to cover the cost of installing a solar array system to meet all energy needs.
Then, Sun Shares works to build a partnership between employer and employees to share the benefits of a community solar array. In order to accomplish this, Sun Shares works directly with the local utility services to assure the participating employees and the employer receive the correct monthly bill credit, based on the system’s monthly solar electric generation. Once that is established, employees can opt into the company’s solar power without having to install any panels on their own residence. Sun Shares provides all the services of system procurement and management, and assigns the monthly bill credits to the participating members. The employer will then apply the solar credits to lower its own utility bill, while also funding any unsubscribed shares.
Sun Shares Earns National Recognition
In 2017, Sun Shares took part in the Solar in Your Community Challenge. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, this prize competition aimed to expand solar electricity access to all Americans, especially underserved segments like LMI households, local governments, and nonprofits. The goal was to create innovative financial and business models to solar energy. Although Sun Shares was not a winning project, the program received an honorable mention for being Local Innovators, recognizing their creative and unique model.