A new 432-panel solar garden in the Kings Creek community of Caldwell County is scheduled to go online in mid-to-late August with a reduced subscription rate to follow in September, according to Blue Ridge Energy spokeswoman Renee Whitener.
“Community solar gardens offer Blue Ridge Energy members easy access to renewable energy without the upfront cost and ongoing maintenance of rooftop solar, or for those living in locations that are too shaded,” Whitener said in a July 25 statement. “The program allows members to subscribe to one or more panels and receive a bill credit for the energy they produce.”
According to BRE, members can subscribe to as many as 10 panels at the cost of $4.50 per panel per member, but Whitener said that due to savings the cooperative has experiences in 2018, the monthly subscription cost will drop to $3.75 starting in the September billing period.
“Blue Ridge Energy is able to pass along this member savings due to the economy of scale in adding the fifth solar garden,” Whitener said.
In the last two-plus years, Whitener said that members with usage of about 1,000 kilowatt hours per month on average have been able to save money by subscribing to a panel, and that many subscribers are participating more for the environmental aspects than for the savings.
Still, Rory McIlmoil, energy savings program manager with Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices, believes the price-structuring model that BRE employs doesn’t pass on potential savings to its members as much as it could.
“We are really glad Blue Ridge (Electric) continues to invest in solar, we wish they would do it in a way that recognizes the value of the solar on that grid and provide that value to members,” McIlmoil said. “As always, we ask that they revise their net metering policy in a way that helps members invest in their own solar instead of discouraging member investment.”
McIlmoil said that the idea of community solar was to save people money while having community members collectively invest in solar.
“Most people can’t save money on their bills on the community solar program because of how (Blue Ridge Energy) credits you,” McIlmoil said.
The solar garden will be the fifth one BRE owns and operates, and the second in Caldwell County. Currently, Watauga, Ashe, Alleghaney each have one, with the Watauga-based solar garden in the Vilas community near Mabel School.
According to Whitener, the total number of available community solar panels will increase to 1,904.
Whitener said that there are currently 150 BRE members on the community solar waitlist going back to September 2017, when the utility announced it had sold every available solar garden subscription.
“Over 150 members are already on the community solar waitlist that resulted from the 2017 success of the cooperative’s original four community solar gardens in Caldwell, Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties,” Whitener said. “The cooperative’s Energy Solutions team will be contacting these members in early August and will open the additional panels for subscription in late August.”
The solar garden is being constructed by Collaborative Solar and SunVolt Electric and Renewable Energy, both of Watauga County, according to Whitener.
BRE previously has said that shaded areas and lack of usable rooftops has driven up the need for solar farms. Appalachian Voices and environmental organization Southern Environmental Law Center have previously contended that BRE’s facilities charges for rooftop solar are excessive and drive away potential customers.
As of November 2018, BRE said they had less than 200 total rooftop solar customers in their coverage area.
For those interested in participating, visit BlueRidgeEnergy.com/Solar or call the cooperative’s community solar phone line at (828) 572-6062.