Community solar has colossal growth potential

shared solar project

Cardiff Council Flat Holm solar array

Utilities use solar farms in the mix of electricity sources. It enters the grid along with electricity from fossil fuels. How can consumers choose to use solar?

Homeowners can put solar panels on their houses. What about renters or apartment dwellers?

Community solar, or shared solar, enables anyone to choose to use solar energy. Neither homeowners nor the utilities own these solar farms. They are community-owned.

If you haven’t heard of them, it’s because they aren’t very common. Yet.

What is community solar?

Energy customers can pool their resources to own a renewable energy power plant in common. It cam be a wind farm or a solar farm. It can use some other renewable source. Or some combination. Community solar, then, is a community owned solar farm.

So far, fewer than 100 community solar systems exist in the US. I have found no statistics on the number of other kinds of community renewable energy plants.

A plant can be installed either on public property or land jointly owned by the community that operates it. Utilities may provide customers the option of shared solar. Charities can own a renewable power plant for its donors. Or individuals or businesses can band together to establish a community.

Almost half of American homes and small businesses can’t install their own rooftop panels. Shared solar or other renewable plants offer important advantages.

  • community owned solar garden

    Mueller Austin solar array and public art installation, Austin, Texas

    Homeowners may not be able to install home solar because their roof is too shady or too small. It may face the wrong direction. Or there may be other reasons.

  • Condominium owners have the addedl problem of getting permission from the homeowner’s association.
  • Renters can’t very well install solar panels on someone else’s building.
  • Apartment buildings may not have good roofs for solar installations. The taller the building, the less likely it is to have enough roof space to power everyone.
  • Commercial buildings may have equipment on the roof, which would get in the way of installing solar panels.

Solar energy in general still accounts for only a tiny fraction of the electricity generated in the US. Community solar power represents less than 1% of that.

Growth of community solar set to explode

A community-owned solar project opened in Ellensburg, Washington in 2006. It claims to be the first in the US.  By the beginning of this year, 91 projects existed, with a total capacity of 80 MW.

Legislation and regulations favorable to community solar have caused utilities to view it favorably. Utilities of all sizes will begin to offer it to their customers over the next few years.

Shared solar opportunities exist in 25 states now. And 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to enable it to grow. By 2020, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that electricity from community solar could grow to as much as 11 GW. That figure could account for half of the distributed solar energy market.

The falling prices of solar equipment also drive the growth in home solar. Overall system pricing fell by 17% in 2015. Options for storing electricity have also become cheaper. Reliable storage solves the problem of how to use solar energy when the sun isn’t shining.

A community solar farm needs much less space than a utility-scale plant. It can use space not suitable for anything else, like a brownfield. It can be built on the ground, on a roof, or even over a parking lot!

Benefits of community solar power

solar parking lot -- community solar power

Solar panels over a parking lot at Arizona State University

Two benefits of shared solar are obvious:

  • Utilities won’t burn as much fossil fuel when they use more solar.
  • Community owned solar makes it available for the half of population that can’t install their own system.

It offers less obvious but important benefits to the utilities:

  • Offering community solar power meets their state-mandated renewable portfolio standard.
  • It keeps a grid-tied connection with their customer base.
  • It does not pose the same threat of retail rate erosion as the net metering laws now in place for home solar.
  • Therefore they can maintain their customer base and still supply the rising demand for renewable energy.

Community solar power has less obvious advantages for consumers, too:

  • Most programs allow subscribers to lock in rates. They provide protection against rising energy prices.
  • Utilities, non-profits, or other third parties bear the expense of building and maintaining the system. Low-income people can therefore afford to subscribe.
  • Mostly poor people live near coal-fired plants. Community solar farms enhance social justice as well as cleaner air.
  • The solar industry already creates jobs 20 times faster than the economy as a whole. Community solar power can only hasten this job growth.
  • Multiple smaller community solar farms make better use of land than large utility-scale ones. They will not require converting farmland or natural areas to energy production.
  • They can also be closer to customers, and therefore improve the visibility of renewable energy solutions.
  • Community owned solar farms create microgrids. Microgrids can disconnect from the main grid in the event of a power failure somewhere and prevent large-scale blackouts.
  • Microgrids also enhance national security by making the grid a less attractive target for terrorists.

What can individuals do?

If you don’t have access to a community solar farm, just wait. One will come to you in the next few years.

If you are inclined to be less passive, keep informed. Community owned solar energy depends on buy-in from the local utility. It also depends on a good legal and regulatory environment.

Is your state’s legal climate favorable, unfavorable, or neutral toward community owned solar? Become an advocate if advocates are needed.

Could your community benefit from its own solar farm? And could you benefit from it? See about starting one.

Finally, do you have a blog? Please link back to this post. Thanks.

10 reasons why we love community solar / Jorge Madrid, Environmental Defense Fund. August 2, 2016.
Community Renewable Energy / Green Power Network, US Department of Energy
NREL report shows big potential for the future of shared solar / Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, US Department of Energy
Shared renewables/community solar / Solar Energy Industries Association
What drives the growth of community solar market? / Community Solar Hub

Photo credits:
Community solar, Cardiff. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Mueller Austin solar array. Photo by Larry D. Moore. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Solar parking lot, ASU. Some rights reserved by Kevin Dooley

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.