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A Consumer’s Guide to Community Solar

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    Solar power has proven to be a clean, reliable form of renewable energy. But for many reasons, not everyone can install panels on their homes. Community solar, also known as a solar farm, may be the solution to this problem. 

    Across the nation, a variety of community solar projects are sprouting up and supplying clean power to more people at a lower rate than individual installations. Read on to learn more about community solar, and if it may be right for you.

    What is Community Solar?

    Community solar refers to the installation of a solar power farm, also called a solar garden, for use by more than one property or home. These projects can be owned by a community or by third parties.

    Many people are interested in solar power but don’t have the means to invest in solar panels. Perhaps because they can’t afford the cost, don’t own property, or cannot install panels due to other obstacles, such as the shape or position of their roof. Community solar gives such people access to clean, renewable energy- and typically at a much lower cost than individual ones.

    What is it not?

    Community solar is not any project that does not involve households sharing the same system and which do not save the consumer money on utility bills.  

    As renewable energy is a rapidly growing industry, there is a variety of business and consumer approaches addressing the increasing demand through solar installations. However, such projects do not qualify as community solar for one main reason. They are intended to reduce environmental harm, and therefore do not save the consumer money on utility bills.

    Group solar purchasing also does not qualify as community solar. It only involves a large group of households purchasing solar materials in bulk, but finally results in each home having its own installation. Therefore, participants do not share the same system, which would give them the advantage of saving money on utility bills.

    How does Community Solar work?

    In a solar community farm, an array or group of solar panels is installed in a location ideally suited to harness energy from the sun. 

    The chosen site has no obstruction such as trees or buildings, providing full access to plentiful sunlight. This allows the installed modules to collect and produce enough solar power.

    The electricity generated by the solar garden is fed to a local grid, which then transmits it to the locals.

    Community solar farm

    Participation in Community Solar

    There are two ways to participate in community solar projects…

    Ownership
    In the ownership model, participants own a share in the solar farm. The panels and equipment may be purchased outright or through a loan. Instead of installing the system in their homes, the modules contribute to the solar plant’s total capacity. The energy produced on the farm is sent to the local grid and credited to the shareholders’ accounts.

    Subscription
    In the subscription model, individuals subscribe to the energy produced by a solar farm, still benefiting from a lower electricity rate. A third party or utility company typically develops and owns the solar garden, and then invites locals to subscribe. Subscribers are usually given access to energy worth about 120% of their average electric consumption.

    Why Community Solar?

    Save Money
    A clear advantage of the solar program is the significant savings in cost. Instead of investing in the panels, which can be costly, you subscribe to the electricity the solar array produces. Subscribers also benefit from significant savings on their electricity bills, often saving 5 to 15% compared to conventional electricity bills.

    No Roof Required
    The solar farms also allow those that cannot install a solar system because of the nature of their roof and location of their house to access clean solar power. Additionally, for those who are not homeowners, community solar plans provide the means to utilize clean energy without worrying about whether or not a system can be installed on their homes.

    Flexible
    The solar program also offers flexibility. If you end up moving, your share can likely be transferred to your new home within that service provider area. This is much more convenient than purchasing new panels or reinstalling your current home system.

    Clean Energy
    Finally, a significant benefit of the solar farm is the environmental effect. Unlike fossil fuels, the system does not emit pollutants such as carbon dioxide that are linked to global warming.

    Therefore, the solar program provides individuals with the means to act and make greener energy changes that benefit our environment.

    Gree energy

    Community Solar Farms in the United States

    The National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) is a federal initiative committed to expanding access to community solar across the United States. 

    Redesigned and relaunched in 2019, the NCSP has three objectives. It seeks to make community solar accessible to all households, affordable, and to educate communities about the benefits of the projects.

    New Jersey

    New Jersey, known for its renewable power initiatives, is looking to expand the state’s solar capacity and provide solar energy to more customers at a lower cost. In 2019, the state approved a three-year program, with 40% of the overall capacity going towards low-and moderate-income households. 

    The first year’s annual capacity is projected at 75 MW (megawatts), with at least that amount for the next two years. Customers, including renters, will be given a monthly subscription towards the service that results in credits on their utility bills. The program is estimated to cover average electric usage for 45,000 NJ residencies.

    New York

    New York is home to an array of solar projects, supporting Governor Cuomo’s mandate requiring 50 percent of the energy consumed to come from renewables by 2030. Sullivan County has a completed community solar project with 2.7 MW solar array, offering reduced energy bills to 350 households in the region.

    Under the state’s NY-Sun initiative, the Empire State is expanding its Solar for All program to provide low-income residents with the benefits of clean, renewable energy while lowering their electric bills. 

    The move will democratize participants’ access to clean solar power without an income barrier. It will as well take environmental justice measures by reducing fossil-fuel pollutants in low-income communities, which are the most affected.

    Colorado

    Colorado is a leader in community solar projects. There are nearly 70 schemes in operation in The Centennial State, which generate more than 50 MW of solar energy. Many additional projects are currently in development.

    Colorado is working with multiple state and federal organizations, including the NCSP, toward developing solar programs for low-income residents across the state.

    One model for this type of development is the Denver Housing Authority’s (DHA) Community Solar Project. The 2 MW DC project was installed through Xcel Energy’s Solar Rewards Community Program. Over 700 residents in the Denver metropolitan region are benefiting from this program, which provides an estimated 15-20% on average monthly utility bills.

    In addition to savings on residents’ electric bills and supporting a transition to clean energy, the project is linked to other benefits. DHA, in conjunction with GRID Alternatives, offered hands-on solar training to residents through its Solar Training Academy. The initiative provided job opportunities and much-desired skills to residents.

    Massachusetts

    Massachusetts is home to the largest community solar and energy storage installation in the United States. This is the 7.1 MW Happy Hollow Community Solar + Storage Farm in Winchendon. It was built at the site of a former gravel pit, and currently holds 3.3 MWh (megawatt hours) of solar power.

    The solar farm is expected to generate 9,000,000 kWh of electricity each year, which, according to Solar Power World, is enough to power 1,200 Massachusetts homes for a year, with average electrical usage.

    Florida

    Florida is looking to put all that plentiful annual sunlight to good use. Florida Power & Light (FPL) has recently proposed the construction of a massive 1,490 MW community solar project. If completed, it would be the largest of its type in the country. It will also be more than double the community solar capacity in the United States.

    Community Solar in Tribal Areas

    The solar programs are also extending to rural areas seeking electricity in their homes.

    In remote parts of the Southwestern USA, some households that have waited decades for access to electricity are now powered by a community solar grid. The Navajo Tribal Utilities Authority’s solar projects have generated 55 MW over the past year, enough to supply the 17-million-acre reservation with clean, renewable solar energy.

    This development also had the benefit of offering more than 400 jobs to mostly tribal members in the area.

    Funding Community Solar

    Home solar power systems frequently benefit from significant federal incentives to help fund the projects. These incentives, however, are not available to support community solar projects. 

    The Renewable Energy Tax Credit, for example, is not currently applicable to community solar projects. It is only intended towards systems installed on permanent residences. There is, however, a movement that wants to bring change. 

    In an attempt to support 80 MW of community solar added to Colorado’s statewide output, new legislation has been proposed asking the tax code to keep up with the nationwide need for clean energy. If passed, this legislation could extend the federal tax credit (ITC) to community solar projects, before the tax credit is phased out in 2022. 

    Conclusion

    We are living in an exciting moment for clean, renewable energy development. Innovative approaches are extending the benefits of solar energy to those without access. This is being achieved through community solar, which offers significantly lowered bills.

    With the potential for expanded governmental funding, the solar programs may well be the future of solar development in the United States. At the moment, forty states have at least one community solar project at work, and this market is only going to expand.