Meg Cichon, Associate Editor, Renewable Energy World
Despite being what many would consider a not-so-ideal day for a solar tour, a bus filled with eager Power-Gen International and Renewable Energy World North America attendees battled the rainy elements and made its way to the Orlando Utility Commission’s (OUC) first community solar garden.
Guests huddled under the more than 1,300 panels that serve as a carport on 2.5 acres of OUC property. The 400-kilowatt (kW) array was commissioned in October 2013 to the delight of 39 customers that each purchased up to 15 1-kW blocks of the system. This equates to up to 1,680 kWh monthly per customer — the average OUC customer uses about 1,200 kWh per month.
OUC signed a 15-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with project developer ESA Renewables at a rate of $0.18/kWh. OUC subsidizes the rate and sells it for $0.13/kWh — about $0.03 higher than local traditional electricity rates — which is locked in for 25 years. Any electricity that they do not use in a given month is rolled over into the next month. Customers agree that they will stick with the program for at least two years, and then they may opt out after paying a small fee.
Though the carport was likely more costly than installing a rooftop or ground-mounted array, OUC wanted their 39 customers to be able to see the installation and “get that feeling of ownership,” said OUC project engineer Eva Reyes, which is why they started the community solar program in the first place.
“OUC is a municipality supported by taxpayers, so our first purpose is to help customers, especially if they can’t install solar themselves,” explained Reyes. “This could be due to renting, tree overhang, an incorrect-facing roof, or they simply can’t afford it. This way they can have all the benefits of solar as if it was directly on their roof.”
The array was built on aluminum racking rather than steel in order to withstand the 150-mph winds that commonly threaten the region during hurricane season, according to Javier Latre, chief technical officer at ESA Renewables. The installation also uses both a PVPowered central inverter for about two thirds of the system and CPS string inverters for the last third. The inverters were part of a cash grant incentive, which allowed developers to install both types of technologies. The string inverters are ideal for tight, modular spaces, said Latre, and “it is also very on-trend right now to install string inverters for systems under 1 megawatt.”
The carport also includes two electric vehicle charging stations, which both use solar power produced directly from the carport. One of which is a fast-charging station that can charge a battery 80 percent in just 30 minutes.
Due to the popularity of the community solar program, OUC is already planning a second installation in the coming year, which has already amassed a waiting list, according Reyes. OUC will release a request for proposals (RFP) in early 2015 and hopes to start construction in the summer.
After attendees got their fill of solar knowledge for the morning and opened their umbrellas to head back to the bus, Latre looked on the brightside: “You know, there is one positive thing about this rain — it’s just mother nature’s way of cleaning the solar panels for us so we don't have to bother.”