Community Solar Explained Through Characters and Stories

Solar installations today typically fall at one of two extremes, either as rooftop panels atop a single home or industrial scale solar farms. Community solar is emerging to fill the middle ground.

Though a relatively new addition to the landscape of green energy options, it offers tremendous potential. According to a recent report from the energy think tank the Rocky Mountain Institute, community solar could generate up to an additional 30 billion watts of capacity by the year 2020, more than doubling current U.S. solar energy production.

To achieve such progress, it is important for homeowners, utility providers, and governments to understand how community solar operates and how they each stand to benefit. So let’s explore this model further through the eyes of these stakeholders.

Who needs community solar?

Consider the case of Ben. Ben wants to install solar panels on his home. He loves the idea of saving money on his electricity bills, reducing his reliance on fossil fuels, and supporting emerging technologies. He hires a solar energy consultant who tells him that the angles on his unusually-shaped roof coupled with the ample shade offered by the stately elms in his yard make solar panels an unrealistic option. They will be expensive to install, difficult to access for maintenance, and won’t see enough sun to generate sufficient power. Ben is disappointed.

Ben’s neighbor Francine has a large, unshaded, and south-facing roof which she has recently replaced. Like Ben, she wants to support renewable energy technology, but she finds solar panels unattractive and is unenthusiastic about covering up her new and expensive rooftop.

A local company, Solar Farm Inc., has developed an array of solar panels at the edge of the neighborhood. They offer to sell Ben and Francine the energy produced by some of their panels. Ben and Francine take the funds they were originally going to use for their rooftop solar array and, instead, purchase a few solar panels in the array so they can benefit from the the energy they generate. Each month, Ben and Francine receive a credit on their utility bills for the energy produced by the panels they own. This is called the ownership model of community solar.

Consider the case of Ben’s other neighbor, Marcel. Marcel has a small home with an aging roof. He wants to go green, but simply doesn’t have the money to invest in a new roof and a solar installation right now. Ben tells him about the Solar Farm Inc. array, but Marcel doesn’t have the upfront money to buy any of their panels.

Down the block, Louise rents a unit in an apartment building. Louise has done a lot of research into solar power and believes it is the future of electricity generation. Unfortunately, as a renter, she has no authority to install solar panels; and as an apartment dweller, she lacks her own roof. Louise’s situation is shared by about 100 million others in the US.

The local energy utility wants to cater to Marcel and Louise. It is worried about losing customers and is excited to take advantage of new green energy government tax credits. The utility company builds a solar farm and lets Marcel and Louise sign up for solar-generated power without any upfront fee. Instead, Marcel and Louise will receive a monthly bill for a solar subscription. This is the subscription model for community solar, and it can also be offered by private companies like Solar Farm Inc.

Net Metering and Virtual Net Metering

A lot of residential solar is enabled by the policy of Net Metering. During periods when your solar system generates more energy than you use, you receive a credit for the amount on your utility bill. You are essentially selling your excess power back to the utility. Alternatively, when your solar power generation is insufficient, you can draw power from the local grid and pay the utility accordingly. A newer system known as Virtual Net Metering is now supporting community solar in many jurisdictions. In this case, you can receive energy credits from a solar panel that is not even connected to your home energy meter.

What makes community solar worthwhile?

There are many benefits to community solar, the greatest of which is that is makes solar energy far more accessible. Hundreds of millions of Americans, as well as countless others around the globe, cannot use solar power for a variety of reasons. Like Ben, Francine, Marcel or Louise, they have roofs that aren’t amenable to solar panels; they don’t have the upfront cash required for an installation; they live in condominiums without individual rooftops; or they are renting and lack the authority to carry out major renovations.

Opting for community solar can also often mean immediate savings on energy bills, and it offers protection against rising energy rates. Additional costs for home solar, like electrical upgrades or ongoing maintenance, are no longer a concern. All the additional solar capacity provided by community installations is also good news for the environment as each new solar customer is one less fossil fuel burner.

Though it is still early days for community solar, the needs that it will meet suggest that this model is poised for rapid expansion in the coming years and decades. Already, governments are recognizing its value and implementing policies like virtual net metering and tax incentives to encourage adoption. Meeting our future energy demands is going to require creative strategic solutions and innovative partnerships such as those fostered by community solar.