New England Solar Project Costs: Survey and Research on the Cost Differences between Project Types
Objective: Vote Solar – a nation-wide solar advocacy group working to make solar affordable and accessible to all – engaged Sustainable Energy Advantage, LLC – a consulting and advisory firm that helps private, public and non-profit organizations develop opportunities for clean, renewable sources of energy – to conduct research into the cost differences between different types of solar projects and the siting of those projects. As New England states have been grappling with solar siting and land conservation, there has been a lack of thorough cost data to help underpin those conversations. A more thorough understanding of the cost differences between solar project types will help the industry and policy makers drive towards reasonable, pragmatic solutions to accelerate solar growth and conserve important lands.
Methods: In order to quantify the in-practice cost differences between different categories of solar projects, SEA conducted a survey to ask developers about typical project costs and the factors that influence costs. SEA first conducted desktop research to develop a benchmark typical cost figure to ask survey respondents to react to. SEA analyzed average and median costs of projects in the MA SREC SQA databases, along with confidential, public, and proprietary data of solar costs in the Northeast. The “leading” design was intentional because respondents are more likely to react to a benchmark than to volunteer one, and because the benchmark costs are derived from data of real projects and should therefore be reasonable starting points. The survey contained a total of 68 questions, including open comment questions to allow full explanations of answers, and was distributed to 254 individuals at over 100 companies. SEA targeted 20 companies as key market participants (given market share and level of activity) to specifically request responses and follow up phone interviews.
Results: Fifteen companies completed the survey, including eight of the high priority targets. Survey responses were generally clear, logical, and complete enough to not warrant follow up calls. In most cases, the median response was equal to the benchmark typical cost, affirming that project costs fall under a range and that the benchmark cost was typically somewhere in the middle of that range. In most cases, the average of survey responses indicated a slightly higher project cost than the benchmark, indicating a higher upper bound of project cost ranges. Rooftop projects were shown to be 11-14% more expensive than greenfield projects, except for projects sized 250-500 kW, where greenfield projects were more expensive than rooftops. Solar canopies were shown to be significantly more expensive than greenfield projects – 16% higher for projects 250 – 500 kW, up to almost twice the cost for projects 2 MW – 5 MW.