Published on 10 Jul, 2018 by Andy Sendy
For all those who want to cut their electric bills and/or go solar — but can’t put panels on their residence or business — a new option is growing across the US: community solar farms. There are already at least 100 community-solar projects in 38 states, and more are coming.
It’s pretty impressive considering that less than a decade ago, none existed. They’ve proved so popular that utilities and project developers are installing community solar even in states that haven’t yet established community solar regulations. By the end of the year, there will be even more community solar projects that people, businesses, and others can buy into.
Indeed it’s one of the fastest growing segments of the solar industry. ”Until two years ago we only had tens of megawatts in the ground. Now over 700 megawatts are online, and that figure will cross a gigawatt later this year," explains Jeff Cramer, executive director of Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA). In the next few years, it’s expected to grow even more, to more than 3 gigawatts of shared solar projects.
How does community solar work?
Basically, people and businesses sign up to either purchase solar photovoltaic panels in a larger solar array or to purchase the power produced by those solar panels. Since the solar farm is likely installed somewhere else, they don’t necessarily have to install solar panels on their roof. It’s an ideal opportunity to go solar if you live in an apartment or condominium or own a business that leases space.
Image source: Department of Energy
Community solar projects can be developed in many different ways and be designed to meet a variety of needs. A developer or utility can site a solar farm at an ideal location where it’s close to existing transmission lines that can handle the extra electricity produced by the farm. Additionally, it can be installed in an area where land is cheaper and gets the best sunlight, like reclaiming a landfill.
In some other instances, like a condo complex, a community solar garden or shared solar array could be installed on the condo’s roof. Residents can opt-in to purchase power from the system.
What’s the benefit of investing in community solar?
Lower-cost, clean electricity. Just like with a solar rooftop that’s owned, leased, or paid for through a power-purchase agreement (PPA), energy from a community-solar system is usually offered at a lower rate than the rate utility customers normally get.
For instance, the nation’s largest community solar company, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) promises savings on energy bills. That’s because of its arrangements with utility companies, its ability to make larger purchases of solar equipment — lowering its costs further — and the ability to site a solar array in a way that it can generate the most solar energy in the region.
How can people buy into community solar?
When a community solar farm offers a purchase option, customers can buy panels in that project. The power that's produced from the panels in terms of kilowatt hours (kWh), is used to offset their electricity bill by that amount of kWhs. CEC’s Roofless Solar Program offers two different ownership types, depending on the state. "In some markets, we offer both," says CEC spokesperson Tim Braun. “An ownership model and a pay as you go model.” The pay as you go model is a subscription model.
In a PPA arrangement, customers pay a set monthly amount for their portion of the solar farm and are reimbursed for the power those solar panels produce on their energy bill. In a virtual net-metering arrangement people are reimbursed or credited for the energy generated by their portion of the solar farm.
"Many of the same financing mechanisms available to onsite solar are available through community solar providers—from leasing for projects owned by the provider to private financing for owning panels. Community solar providers can introduce customers to various forms of financing based on the market in which they are located,” Cramer says.
Where is community solar available?
The Community Solar Hub, a project of CEC and the Department of Energy, which helps people sign up for community solar projects, said there were 101 community solar projects across 26 states by early 2017. A more recent report, “Community Solar Program Design Models,” from the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) stated that 228 utilities in the country have community solar projects.
As of early 2018, 36 states and Washington, DC, have community solar projects. They are available in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Washington, DC, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
In addition to Community Solar Hub, CEC’s site Roofless Solar will let you know if a community-solar project is available in your area. Inputting your ZIP code on its website will show you any projects locally available.