Many people in the United States would like to power their homes from solar but can’t do so because they rent, live in multiple-unit dwellings, don’t have optimal roof sun angles, or other reasons. But there’s a solar option for those people too: Community Solar. Think of it — an array of panels is installed on an offsite sunny location, and even if your residence doesn’t have what it takes to support solar panels, you can share local solar facilities with other community subscribers. Everyone who participates receives credit on their electricity bills for their share of the power produced.
This community solar guide can help inform you about the power and potential of solar for you, even if it feels unattainable.
What is Community Solar?
Community solar is sometimes called “shared solar” or “solar gardens.” According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), it’s a distributed solar energy deployment model that allows customers to buy or lease part of a larger, off-site shared solar photovoltaic (PV) system. Shared solar falls under the community solar umbrella, allowing multiple participants to benefit directly from the energy produced by one solar array.
Community solar agreements give people who want to go green with their energy the chance to enjoy advantages of solar energy without installing their own solar energy system. The solar panels and related equipment are set up in a separate location, so residents don’t need to buy and install equipment on their personal properties.
Community solar expands access to solar for everyone, especially low-to-moderate income customers most impacted by a lack of access, since there is no upfront investment required. The result? A more robust, distributed, and adaptable electric grid. (Here’s a great article that was published on CleanTechnica that describes the racial and economic equity that community solar can help to achieve — “Report: Designing Community Solar Programs That Promote Racial & Economic Equity.”)
A May 2020 webinar by NREL described how cumulative community solar capacity has grown by about 130% year over year since 2010, or more than doubled on average year over year. Partially, that’s because projects have been larger over time. Deployment of relatively small-scale projects has also been strong in electric cooperatives, publicly owned utilities (POUs), and municipal utilities, with more than 320 coop and municipal utility projects deployed.
The Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) points out that community solar facilities are usually less than 5 megawatts (MW) of power capacity and vary in the number of acres affected. Unlike residential housing and commercial development on a sold-off farm parcel, community solar installations are generally on leased land, and well-designed systems can be returned to their original state.
US Market Status as of May 2020
Community solar is one of the fastest growing segments of the US solar photovoltaic market.
- Community solar projects are located in 39 states, plus Washington, DC.
- 20 states, plus Washington, DC, have policies that support community solar.
- Community solar projects represent 2,083 megawatts alternating-current (MW-AC) of total installed capacity.
- About 88% of the total market is concentrated in the top 10 states, with Minnesota and Massachusetts as leaders, at more than 560 MW-AC installed and more than 400 MW-AC installed, respectively.
For more data, check out this John Farrell article on CleanTechnica about “The 2020 Community Power Scorecard.”
How Successful is Community Solar?
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national research and advocacy organization that helps people in the US to build economies driven by local priorities and accountable to people and the planet, updates state community solar programs quarterly.
They’ve determined that community solar programs have been constantly evolving: some have had to loosen restrictions, increase individual project size limits, and expand the overall size of the program. With the power of hindsight, it now makes sense that new programs should build these changes into their programs from the beginning.
Recent Community Solar News
In June 2020, Zachary Shahan wrote about the Illinois Community Solar program from Clearway Community Solar, which landed Northwestern University as its first major commercial subscriber. He also wrote in June 2020 about a new community solar option in Colorado.”
Tina Casey wrote about a revived US DOE initiative on community solar in April that is aimed at making sure every household and business in the US has access to renewable energy by 2025. In this June 2020 article, she explained what she calls the “invisible middle of solar power.” She describes how the “invisible solar power fruit is dangling smack in the middle between utility and residential scale.”
Want to see how one energy conglomerate has seen the solar light and is helping its customers to access to solar power? Check out this July 2020 article by Steve Hanley about the Duke Energy Florida service area.
Community solar offers the same benefits as any other renewable energy project — it’s good for the environment, offers a diversified energy supply, spurs on economic development, and creates new jobs. It’s a win-win-win-win option for communities across the US.