Peacham Community Solar. Credit: YouTube

Community Solar Benefits Renters & Low Income Communities

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June study by researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that analyzed data from 11 states found people who adopt community solar are 6.1 times more likely to live in multifamily buildings, are 4.4 times more likely to rent, and earn 23% less annual income than rooftop solar adopters, who tend to be more wealthy.

In the introduction to study the authors write, “Rooftop and community based solar are alternative product classes for residential solar in the United States. Community based solar, where multiple households buy solar from shared systems, could make solar more accessible by reducing initial costs and removing adoption barriers for renters and multifamily building occupants… These differences are driven, roughly evenly, by inherent differences between the two solar products and by policies to promote low income community solar adoption. The results suggest that alternative solar products can expand solar access and that policy could augment such benefits.”

The study brought together demographic data, both measured and modeled, from more than 100,000 rooftop solar owners and 75,000 community-based solar adopters. Notably, California wasn’t included, as it lacks a robust market for community-based solar and regulators seem determined to keep it that way, Canary Media says. Despite the omission of California, the analysis covers ​most of the key community solar markets, which together provide about 4.2 gigawatts of electricity — about half of the national total.

Getting The Word Out

Despite finding that solar from community-based assets boosts access to clean energy, the researchers found it does not increase solar access among minorities. Asians, Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinos aren’t any more likely to adopt community solar than rooftop solar — at least not yet. The reasons are still foggy, but minority households may be more skeptical of how community solar is advertised, Eric O’Shaughnessy, lead author of the study, said. Imagine a community solar project representative shows up at someone’s door with a clipboard and says they can get free solar without installing anything. All they have to do is sign up and start saving money immediately. ​“A lot of people are really suspicious of that. It can sound too good to be true,” he said.

That is perfectly understandable. If someone knocked on the portcullis at the entrance to CleanTechnica global headquarters and made such claims, Zachary would likely send them packing. A trained sales professional would do things quite differently by educating the potential customer before asking for a commitment. Scammers tend to target low income communities, which has made the people who live in those communities highly skeptical of sales pitches of any kind. Among other things, potential subscribers in low income communities are likely dealing with numerous demands on their time and attention, and they may be skeptical of energy-related proposals, especially given the problem with predatory marketers offering alternative retail electric service.

Stephanie Speirs is the head of Solstice, a company that connects residents to community solar and advocates for clean energy access in underserved communities. “Community organizing is an under-appreciated skill in the energy industry, but it is a skill that requires experience to do constructively and respectfully,” Speirs tells Canary Media. ​“When you work with under-resourced communities, trust is your most valuable currency. At Solstice, we understand that we aren’t entitled to that trust. We have to earn it, and we can only move at the speed of trust.” To seek subscribers, Solstice works with partners and ​“ambassadors” in communities, including business, government, and nonprofit entities. “We don’t parachute into communities. When people hear about community solar through a stranger, it can seem too good to be true. Our partners help us spread the word that community solar is a credible product that provides customers with guaranteed savings on their electric bills with no upfront cost, while also reducing emissions.”

The researchers analyzed the demographics of community solar adopters in three states with programs for low and moderate income households — Illinois, New York, and Oregon. The team found that those who participated in the community solar programs not only had lower incomes, but also were more likely to rent and to live in multifamily buildings than people who adopted community solar but didn’t participate in those programs. What’s more, program participants in Oregon were more likely to identify as minority households.

O’Shaughnessy doesn’t know why exactly a state program might expand community solar access for minorities, but he has a hypothesis he’d like to explore in future work. Having a program ​“that’s known and more discussed,” with details published on a state website that residents can check out, might significantly bolster community solar’s credibility. The Biden administration’s $7 billion Solar for All initiative is funding programs across the country to expand solar access for low and middle income Americans. Some of the money will go toward developing community solar projects — a move that this study indicates really will deliver the benefits of clean energy more equitably.

Community Solar & Utility Profits

Much of the resistance to community solar comes from utility companies, which often use some of the money they get from their customers to lobby state and local governments to establish policies that favor them. The majority of utility companies are investor-owned, which means their number one focus is on profits (and lavish compensation schemes for their top executives).

Bear in mind that there is a close, some might say incestuous, relationship between utility companies and their fuel suppliers, whether coal or methane. They have invested billions in fixed assets such as thermal generating stations, some of which require decades to break even. Even though the “fuel” for solar power is free, the companies are frightened out of their wits by the prospect that something will come along that will disrupt their carefully calculated financial plans. Better to keep burning stuff from a business point of view than worry about niggling problems like an overheating planet.

That may be one explanation for why the California Public Utilities Commission recently took a sledgehammer to rooftop solar and community solar programs. In Virginia, Dominion Energy just won a major victory by blocking cities and towns from putting rooftop solar systems on their municipal buildings. The investor-owned utilities make money from investing in electrical generation infrastructure, not from distributing electrons created by someone else. Until a solution is found to that conundrum, ideas like community solar will face significant headwinds.

Community solar is such a good idea because it combines several benefits. It produces electricity at lower cost. It decentralizes the grid and gives more control over the supply of electricity to local communities. It makes solar possible for people who do not have access to rooftop solar systems. It costs less per kWh produced than rooftop solar and it helps reduce the need for new thermal generating stations. With so many significant benefits to community based energy, it’s no wonder so many entrenched interests are opposed to it!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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