Expanding clean energy access through community solar–by Emily Robichaux

Solar: not just for homeowners anymore

Oftentimes the phrase “going solar” conjures up images of solar panels on homes around a neighborhood. But what if you’re among the 49% of American households for whom this isn’t an option, perhaps because you have a shaded roof, have a roof that can’t support panels, or don’t own your home? How can solar energy be made accessible to everyone?

Fortunately, in a growing number of states households can now participate in a new model for solar called community solar. In this approach, also referred to as community shared solar and solar gardens, large arrays are installed at remote locations, and consumers and businesses can “join” the project to benefit from a portion of the energy generated by the array. Community solar is made possible through a policy called virtual net metering. Net metering is the process of being credited by the utility on your electricity bill for energy you produce (such as from panels on your own roof). The virtual piece comes in by extending net metering capabilities to consumers and businesses who participate in shared solar arrays hosted remotely, not on their own rooftops.

There are several ways consumers can join community solar projects

Consumers and businesses can join community solar projects in a number of ways, with pros and cons to each approach. Those considering joining community solar should consider their priorities (such as flexible commitment and willingness to put money down upfront) when making a decision. Community solar participation models include:

  • Buying a portion of the array by paying up front. The owner is then entitled to the energy produced by that portion as well as, possibly, portions of other incentives associated with the project such as the Investment Tax Credit LINK or Solar Renewable Energy Credits LINK. For those with capital on hand to purchase, this approach represents notable savings over the long term.
  • Signing a Power Purchase Agreement, agreeing to purchase a certain amount of the production for an extended period of time at a specific per kilowatt hour (kWh) rate, likely below the consumer’s current per kWh rate. This approach can lock in low energy rates (which tend to rise over time), thereby producing savings in the long term. No money is required up front, and the consumer does not own his/her portion of the array.
  • Subscribing to the project, as one subscribes to Spotify. In this model, consumers and businesses pay a monthly (or perhaps quarterly or annual) subscription fee to the operator of the array in order to be eligible for the electricity bill credits. This option tends to have the most flexible commitment terms and doesn’t require money up front.

Find a project near you

With increasing numbers of states setting or seeking to achieve their Renewable Portfolio Standards, and with consumer demand for solar increasing, we can expect to see more community solar projects coming online. In fact, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that community solar will comprise up to 50% of the distributed solar market (meaning, installed near to where it will be used) by 2020. Because this new approach enables everyone to join the solar movement, community solar is positioned to hasten the clean energy transition in a more accessible way. Consider joining the movement by finding a community solar project near you!

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