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Community Solar Is Clean, Renewable Energy For Everyone

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Solar power press frequently covers home solar with some commercial solar, but typically not nearly as much about community solar. Community solar is a clean, renewable energy solution for people who may not be able to afford to buy their own home solar power systems. Clean, renewable energy must be inclusive of all, or some people in urban centers and rural areas will not be able to experience its benefits.

Michelle Moore, author of “Rural Renaissance” and CEO of Groundswell, answered some questions about community solar for CleanTechnica.

As the author of Rural Renaissance: Revitalizing America’s Hometowns Through Clean Power, what are some of the book’s key insights?

I wrote “Rural Renaissance” as a roadmap for building local, clean energy futures (note: “future” is plural), and the book is filled with examples of hometown heroes who are doing just that all over America. From energy efficiency to solar, energy storage, EVs, and broadband (which is critical infrastructure for a clean, resilient grid), the book includes funding, financing, and implementation strategies that you can use to bring the same solutions to the place you live. The Inflation Reduction Act became law shortly after it was published, which represents the single biggest investment in rural power in the US in 100 years. Given the abundance of federal funding to start local programs like the ones I write about in “Rural Renaissance,” it’s a great time to pick up the book.

How and why did you become involved with community solar?

I had invested 20 years of my professional life helping big companies go green, and inspired by my faith, I recognized it was time to put what I’d learned to work helping people live a little better with clean power. Because community solar lets people come together as a community and share power, thereby expanding access, it was the right place to start.

Why is community solar power important?

Rooftop solar works for less than half the country. Community solar can work for everyone — democratizing the benefits of solar and keeping energy affordable. By adding energy storage, community solar can also increase resilience and share infrastructure benefits with local utilities and with the grid. It’s a great “we’re all in this together” kind of clean energy solution.

Are there any indirect benefits for community solar power installations that are not commonly known?

While it’s not unique to community solar, thanks to the new “Direct Pay” option for the solar tax credit — which was among the many policy innovations in the Inflation Reduction Act — local communities can now own their own power. Nontaxable organizations like churches, nonprofit affordable housing groups, municipalities, and nonprofit local utilities including rural electric cooperatives can now directly receive the value of the solar tax credit. Direct pay democratizes the ownership of energy assets, which means neighbors can now come together through local community institutions like churches to produce, own, and share solar power (and energy storage!).

Michelle Moore, image courtesy of Groundswell

How many community solar projects has your organization completed, and where are they?

Groundswell builds community power with equitable community solar projects and resilience centers, clean energy programs that reduce energy burdens, and pioneering research. We currently serve almost 6,000 income-qualified households in the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, and upstate New York with more than $3 million per year in energy savings.

Do your projects combine solar power with energy storage?

Groundswell builds community resilience centers that combine solar and energy storage. Our work began in partnership with the City of Baltimore and has now expanded across Maryland and into Chicago’s Southland in Illinois and into Georgia. Most often installed with churches and communities of faith, resilience centers keep the lights on and provide a place to stay warm or cool with the power goes out. It’s an incredibly important service – particularly to our most vulnerable neighbors for whom power outages and extreme heat and cold are a grave risk to life and health.

What is the typical electrical capacity of your community solar power projects?

Individually, the community solar and resilience center projects we’ve developed range from about 150 kW to 700 kW and serve from 50 to about 150 households each. The optimal size for projects of these types will vary based on the local built environment and market structure and the needs of the local community.

What are some of the race and class-related aspects of solar power?

There are many. I’ll highlight one for you here. As Groundswell has experienced with each of the projects we’ve built, the legacy of racist policies like redlining that excluded Black and African American communities from access to financing for decades – starving communities of investment and opportunities – has impacted our energy infrastructure, too. To build a new solar or resilience project in a neighborhood that has been impacted by policies like redlining, you often have to invest in repairs such as upgrading electrical services, upgrading the infrastructure associated with interconnection, and repairing the roof. Making these reparative investments is important so that everyone has equitable access to clean power, which I would argue is a moral responsibility. Funding and financing tools like the new “Low Income Communities Bonus Tax Credit” in the Inflation Reduction Act help close these gaps.

Is there a return on investment for community solar and if there is, what is it?

There is a financial return on investment for community solar and resilience centers as well as ample community and public benefits associated with these types of projects. The specifics depend on the structure of the local market, including if and what type of state and local incentives may be available. The area Groundswell is most interested in exploring is community ownership, as enabled by the new “Direct Pay” option for solar tax credits. We look forward to the wealth-building potential of asset ownership being broadly available to the community-based nonprofits and individual households that make these kinds of projects possible.

Does community solar sometimes include agrivoltaics?

Land use, and specifically questions about agriculture and energy land uses, is being raised as an area of concern by a growing number of rural communities across the country. While only about half a percent of US land resources would be needed to power the entire country with solar – or about 145 square miles – it can feel like a lot more than that when a thousand-acre solar farm gets built in your county. Agrivoltaics are a great example of dual land use. Solar panels are intertwined with agricultural production, sometimes using the solar panels themselves to shield tender crops from increasingly intense weather. Jack’s Solar Garden in Colorado is a great example of this approach in practice, and Dr. Greg Barron-Gafford’s research group at the University of Arizona is a great place to learn more.

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