Community Solar

Image source: Andreas Gucklhorn for Unsplash

As advancing technology makes residential solar energy more affordable and reliable, individuals across the country are choosing to convert their homes and properties to this renewable resource. In the recent past, that meant a hefty upfront personal investment. Solar users also needed to integrate panels, generators, and power storage units into their existing homes. Until Tesla made their rooftop solar panels and solar roofs available, homeowners found it difficult to incorporate equipment onto their properties in an aesthetically pleasing way. Challenges like these discouraged many homeowners from trying the clean, cost-effective power of solar energy.

Community solar is changing the way property owners view renewable energy. This cooperative model makes solar energy available to a wider audience. Is a solar community the right answer for your energy needs?

What is a Solar Community?

The US Department of Energy defines a solar community as “a solar-electric system that… provides power and/or financial benefit to…multiple community members.” These voluntary neighborhood programs allow property owners to enjoy the perks of solar power without a large initial investment. Collection panels and other equipment are set up in a central location, so users don’t need to install unsightly equipment on their properties. The hardware and produced power are owned by all members of the cooperative and any benefits are equally shared amongst the group.

Solar community participants are multi-family unit dwellers, small business owners, and rural residents, as well as traditional single-family property owners. Since all costs are shared, solar communities make it easier for low- to middle-income residents to participate in renewable energy resources. They are also ideal for properties where panel installation isn’t possible. Community solar projects make renewable energy accessible to a wider range of people than ever before.

How Do Solar Communities Work?

There are four ways to organize a solar community. Each method has unique benefits for participants.

  • In utility-sponsored communities, utility companies own and operate the solar array. Consumers can purchase or lease shares of that energy on their regular power bills. As nonrenewable resources become more expensive to acquire over time, solar community consumers can realize significant savings.
  • The on-bill crediting model lets energy consumers invest in a local solar facility. In exchange, they receive credits to their monthly power bills. This can appear as a reduced kilowatt-per-hour rate or a monetary credit.
  • Special Purpose Entities are solar production projects sponsored by businesses. Individuals and other companies can invest and share in the benefits.
  • Non-profit organizations create solar communities in low-income and underserved areas. These programs often include job training initiatives that aim to improve the local economy. Private donors fund these efforts.

In general, solar communities involve a shared power collection infrastructure. Members receive credits, payments, or direct access to power to run their homes and businesses.

Are You Eligible to Join a Solar Community?

Ground mount solar panels

There are several ways to find a solar community in your area. Use these online tools to discover the solution to your renewable energy needs.

  • Find an active solar community near you with this search tool. Eligibility varies by program.
  • Contact your local utility provider for information on sponsored communities.
  • If there are no communities in your area, you could organize one. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory publishes a guide that walks you through evaluating, planning, constructing, and operating a community solar energy project.

These resources help you discover or create renewable energy resources in your community.

Community vs Private Solar Installations: Which One is Better?

Is investing in a community project the best way to bring solar energy to your property? Find the answer by asking yourself these questions.

  • How much am I able or willing to invest? While perks like the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit make recouping your costs for solar installations quicker, out-of-pocket costs for private systems are prohibitive for some. Community projects require less individual investment.
  • How much control do I need? Having a personal solar energy unit gives you the ability to customize your system to suit your lifestyle. Shared solar is managed by the cooperative and for the benefit of all members. This may be an issue for businesses that use a large amount of power.
  • How do I plan on maintaining my system? Community solar installations are professionally managed and maintained. Private systems, however, are the sole responsibility of the owner. Unless you’re technically savvy, you’ll need the services of an experienced solar technician for repairs and regular maintenance.
  • Is my property a good place for solar panels? The shape and size of your roof, the layout of your land, and surrounding vegetation can limit your potential solar yield. Renters and those who must comply with neighborhood association restrictions may have a hard time getting the proper approvals. In these cases, a community solar garden is the better option.

Community installations require a smaller initial investment and almost no on-site equipment. Private installations, however, can provide large volumes of power with no restrictions.

What is the Future of Community Solar?

As traditional sources of energy deplete, renewable energy becomes more important to the continued prosperity of our world. According to a study from MIT, global solar energy systems will soon be able to produce electricity on a multi-terawatt scale. Solar farms could provide cheap, clean, consistent, and conflict-free power all over the world.

While private installations will continue to be a good option for land and business owners, community solar gardens are a better option for the average energy user. Renters, lower-income residents, and those whose land simply won’t accommodate solar panels will still be able to enjoy a cost-effective renewable energy source with community solar installations. This increase in demand will drive innovation, lower costs for everyone, and support a healthier environment for us all.