Powering our lives with clean energy is essential to decarbonize and eliminate the CO2 emissions that are changing the climate before our eyes. Fortunately, clean energy is now more accessible than ever with multiple options for every household including the exciting, new kid on the block: community solar.
While grid-supplied electricity is already rapidly decarbonizing — emissions from US electricity dropped nearly 40% from their 2007 peak — terrifying wildfires, heat domes, and floods remind us that we need to dramatically speed up the transition to clean, pollution-free energy. At the household scale, solar is the most viable option. (Other major renewable sources of energy like wind, geothermal, and hydropower work at a regional scale, but aren’t as practical for individual homes). As the cost of solar decreases each year, all forms of solar are within reach of more people.
There are three options for solar energy to decarbonize your life: 1) rooftop solar; 2) utility renewable energy programs (which probably also include wind and possibly hydro); and 3) subscription to a community solar project somewhere in your region. We use all three solutions for our net zero carbon home and transportation.
Putting solar on your rooftop is the big move, and we’ll dig into it in a future post, but we wanted to start with a more readily accessible solution. Community solar is for anyone who lives in one of the many parts of the country that offers it, especially people who are eager to decarbonize, but don’t own their roof, have a roof that isn’t good for solar due to structure, age, shade or orientation, or aren’t in a position to invest the money for rooftop solar.
Enter Community Solar
Community solar enables people who can’t install panels on their roof to buy or lease part of a large-scale solar system somewhere in the region where they live. Participants, also called subscribers, sign up for a portion of the electricity produced by the large array and usually pay a discounted price. They receive credit on their utility bill for the electricity generated by their share of the solar production. Community solar directly supports the development of local solar farms and ensures that participants’ electricity comes from renewable energy.
Community solar projects are typically owned by utilities or private parties (sometimes non-profits) and may be located on buildings or open land that is publicly or privately owned. They allow any area resident to access solar and provide stable, and typically less expensive, electric rates for participants. They also increase renewable energy in the area, which is good for everyone.
Community solar is growing steadily. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, capacity has grown by 121% year-over-year since 2010, a trend that is expected to continue. This is due to more projects coming online and projects getting larger, and thus producing more energy. While there are community solar projects in 40 states, three-quarters of those are concentrated in just four: Florida, Minnesota, New York, and Massachusetts.
Experts say that buying into local projects through community solar makes the biggest environmental impact, because subscribers support the build-out of renewable electricity infrastructure in their area.
Our Experience with Community Solar
We are the proud owners of 27 rooftop solar panels that provide about 60% of our all electric energy needs (which include two rental units and an electric car), but we wanted to make sure the remaining 40% of our energy needs was provided by clean electricity.
Our home state of Oregon passed a community solar law in 2016, and it took four years to design the program. It launched in early 2020. We signed up through an incredibly simple and straightforward process that led us to Oregon Shines (now Arcadia), a private company that connects individuals and business to project managers delivering community solar projects.
We filled out a brief form that included energy usage history from our utility bill and voila! Soon we “received” enough energy to meet most of our remaining needs from about seven solar panels at the Red Prairie Solar Project, in Yamhill County, an hour from our home in Portland, Oregon. The project was under construction when we signed up, which is typical for these projects as they build subscribers so they are fully owned by the time of operation.
“Our” Red Prairie project went live in 2021 and has since been producing clean energy, which is sent to the grid, and provides the energy we use that’s not produced on our roof. Of course, the electrons flowing from the Red Prairie panels don’t actually go to our house, but they provide new solar resources in the region that match the electricity we use (which isn’t covered by our rooftop solar) and make us a net zero energy and carbon household.
We pay for a portion of Red Prairie’s energy production on our utility bill, at a lower rate than the utility-provided power we were buying before. Oregonians can save about 5% with a community solar subscription or up to 30% if income-qualified. Depending on the season, and how much the panels produce, we receive a bill credit of $8 to $30 and pay a subscription fee of $7 to $27, so we save $1-$3 per month. Yes, it’s odd that we get a credit and also pay a fee, but it works out in the end and yields some very small savings. It’s a really easy way to save a few bucks and go solar. The Department of Energy found that 76% of community solar projects provide financial benefits to customers over the course of the subscription.
We signed a 20-year contract, but can cancel with 30 days notice without charge. This ease and affordability makes solar an option for so many more people, including low-income families, who are served by a special community solar program in Oregon.
Around the time we subscribed, there were a few other notable community solar projects coming online that are designed to serve specific communities. One was a rooftop project at an affordable housing development, owned by Rose Community Development Corporation, in which building residents are the subscribers. The other project is in Talent, Oregon, a place devastated by wildfires in 2020, in which town residents co-own a system on an Oregon Shakespeare Festival warehouse.
You Can Do it Too
According to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), there are community solar projects in 39 states, plus Washington, DC. However, there are limited projects that are currently open for enrollment, so you might have to get on a list for the next project in your region. Energy Sage has a community solar finder by zip code, or you can download NREL’s Sharing the Sun Community Solar Project Data and search for projects in your utility territory. You can also check Solar United Neighbors or contact your local utility. If you live in an area without community solar, keep an eye on policy changes that could bring the program to you in the next few years. Better yet, tell your state lawmakers that you want it now!
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to subscribe to a project outside your electric territory, because local utilities are responsible for tracking and distributing bill credits from the community solar projects. Plus, the intent of community solar is to support projects that decarbonize the local grid, and this requires proximity.
Our friends at Electrify PDX just published a quick guide for signing up for Community Solar in Oregon, which will provide a general sense of what it takes to do so anywhere in the US. It’s about as easy as subscribing to a streaming service.
The difference between signing up for community solar and installing solar panels on our house was the ease and affordability. We didn’t put any money down, and we signed up in 15 minutes. There are definite benefits to owning your own solar panels, because you reap all the financial benefits (we’ve netted about $7,000 since our 2012 install) and directly power your home with sunshine. So community solar won’t, and shouldn’t, replace residential rooftop solar. But it’s another great way for individuals to help accelerate the transition to 100% clean electricity.
This article is part of a series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.
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