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Shared renewable energy access

Power to the People: Unleashing Community Solar for a Brighter Tomorrow

Montana Denton
December 6, 2023

In the ever-evolving landscape of sustainable energy solutions, solar power has been a longtime staple in the transition to renewables. And yet, it faces limitations that have hindered its global adoption — from high installation costs to varying sunlight availability, it’s just not a reliable source of power for everyone. However, developments in community solar just might be the solution to the world’s solar problem.

The Dawn of Community Solar

At its core, community solar involves harnessing the power of the sun to generate electricity, but with a unique twist. Unlike traditional solar installations on individual rooftops, community solar projects are centralized arrays that allow multiple participants to benefit — from individuals and families to businesses and nonprofits. Most projects use solar panels at an off-site array, with the electricity generated shared amongst community members, promoting accessibility and inclusivity in renewable energy.

Community Solar: The Basics

Community solar projects collect electricity from sunlight, which then flows through a meter to the utility grid. Subscribers pay for a share of the electricity generated, typically in the form of a monthly subscription fee. The local utility company pays the community solar provider for the energy generated, with each subscriber receiving reimbursement as a credit for the power generated by their community solar subscription, reducing their monthly electricity costs.

Advantages of Community Solar

According to a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nearly 50% of households and businesses are unable to host their own rooftop solar systems for a variety of reasons. They may be renters, have roof conditions that aren’t conducive to a rooftop photovoltaic system, or are simply unable to afford the upfront (and often pricey!) costs of installing a home system.

But with the creation of community solar, the option to switch to renewables is still on the table. The advantages of community solar extend far beyond individual energy savings. Households and businesses enjoy reduced electricity costs compared to traditional fossil fuel utilities, lower carbon footprints, and the satisfaction of contributing to a cleaner environment, regardless of whether they have the capacity to host a system on their own roofs. It can be a resilient energy supply during blackouts or weather events and has been proven to create local jobs and stimulate economic growth.

On the Rise

Regardless of your income bracket, community solar is making renewable energy more affordable than ever. Several states have also passed legislation for low-income community solar provisions, including funding for projects specifically designed for low-income subscribers.

While it may sound too good to be true, community solar isn’t going away anytime soon. Led by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) is a coalition of community solar stakeholders representing a variety of sectors who are working to overcome barriers and expand access to affordable community solar for every American household while also promoting the other benefits of the projects.

Finding Local Community Solar Projects

Currently, there’s at least one community solar project in 43 states and the District of Columbia. States with “enabling legislation” passed typically have more projects and subscriptions available.

If you’re interested in making the switch, contact your local electric utility or hop online to look for community solar subscriptions in your area. The sign-up process for community solar is often dependent on the requirements in your state and the number of programs available for enrollment. Check out the National Renewable Energy Lab State Community Solar List, which includes links to active projects available for enrollment and websites that include state-specific information on how to subscribe. This Groundswell toolkit is another resource specifically organized by community solar program design and low-income financing structures.  

Choosing the Right Plan For You

A group of people

Community solar projects typically offer various subscription plans, each with its own implications on individual contributions. Selecting the right plan involves considering personal preferences, energy needs, and the desired level of involvement.

It’s important to look out for programs that incorporate key consumer protections to ensure that you’ll receive all of the benefits of being a subscriber. Some best practices in consumer protections for community solar plans include ensuring that subscribers will receive a bill credit, including at least 20% in household savings; no additional fees included in the contract; clear and upfront disclosure documents that clearly state what will be included in the subscription, and strong compliance protections.

Sharing the Sun: Bringing Community Solar to Your Area

For those fortunate enough to have ongoing community solar projects in their area, joining an existing group is a straightforward path to participation. However, in areas without established initiatives, forming a community solar group becomes an empowering option. This process involves rallying like-minded individuals, garnering support, and collectively initiating a project that benefits the entire community.

While the progress can be slow-going, communities of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds around the world are pushing for the implementation of community solar in their areas. Most notably Susan Auslander, an 89-year-old in Connecticut, spearheaded a campaign to bring solar power to her retirement community. While it took her and her fellow residents five years of organizing, researching financing options, and persisting through management changes, she and her team successfully showcased the power of community involvement in advancing sustainable energy solutions, convincing the management to install 1,344 solar panels over parking lots and a building roof, offsetting 607.2 metric tons of carbon annually.

The Future is Bright for Community Solar

The success of community solar relies on reaching a critical mass of participants who are actively involved in their respective projects. Community involvement doesn’t just plateau once the subscription contract is signed — individuals can plan an active role in their project by providing feedback on designs and site selection, supporting community investment and reinvestment initiatives, assisting with monitoring and maintenance efforts, and being spokespeople for community solar in renewable energy advocacy, education, and policy initiatives.

While the sense of community that comes along with communal solar projects may feel foreign for some, the collaborative nature is about more than just a dip in the monthly energy bills. When individuals actively participate in the various stages of a community solar project, it strengthens the fabric of the community, creating a more resilient and sustainable energy ecosystem.

The beauty of community solar lies in its ability to unite people under a common cause: sustainable energy. By sharing the resources and benefits amongst a group of subscribers, community solar transforms the transition to renewable energy from a solitary endeavor into a communal effort, fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility for a brighter future.

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