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Community Solar Gardens: A Bright Idea Whose Time Has Come

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Going solar has never been easier. Does your community harness the power of the sun?

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Aug 19, 2015

solar panels
Solar panels have become an increasingly common sight on buildings around the world, spurred on by rapidly falling prices, government incentives, and forward-thinking legislation. Perhaps you’ve looked into getting solar yourself and learned that you live under one of the millions of roofs not well-suited to producing solar power. Maybe you rent, maybe there’s too much shade, or maybe the upfront cost of installation is prohibitive.

If you’re still hoping to produce your own energy, there’s a new solar game in town you might want to explore: solar gardens.

What Are Community Solar Gardens?

Solar gardens are large arrays of solar panels that produce power for a local community, often on marginal farm land. Similar to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) membership, participants pay a fee that entitles them to a commensurate share of the “harvest,” which shows up as a credit on members’ power bills rather than as a box of veggies. Millions of North American homes are poor candidates for solar because of shade or north-facing roofs, while low-income households get priced out of traditional installations by steep upfront costs, and renters do not own the roofs needed for rooftop solar. A community solar garden enables these individuals to lease solar panels to power their homes cleanly despite these limitations.

Last month, the White House announced a new initiative aimed at increasing access to solar power for low-income communities, including a National Community Solar Partnership to help develop solar gardens for those who can’t afford rooftop panels. Federal and state governments, non-profits, and solar companies will work together in upcoming years to greatly expand the number of homes powered by solar energy.

A total of 66 megawatts worth of community solar projects were completed in the U. S. between 2006 (the pioneering Ellensburg, Washington project) and the end of 2014. A recent report from Greentech Media predicts that nearly twice that amount of community solar will come online in 2015 alone, with annual installations increasing sevenfold in the next couple years.

Researchers expect community solar to be one of the fastest growing segments of the solar market.

Currently 24 states have at least one community solar garden, with the bulk of upcoming projects located in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. Researchers expect community solar to be one of the fastest growing segments of the solar market, so a project may take off near you in the very near future. As more state regulatory bodies respond to the demand for community solar, these projects will become feasible and financially attractive in more communities, maybe even yours.

How Do Solar Garden Subscriptions Work?

Participation in community solar gardens can be structured in two ways, with either upfront or monthly subscriptions. In the upfront model, you pay for the panels as you would if you installed them on your home, and you receive a credit on your power bill proportionate to the amount of energy they produce each month. Unlike rooftop installs, however, community projects do not allow subscribers to take the federal tax credit (currently 30%, but set to expire at the end of 2016). Some developers offer financing to help with upfront costs, and the administrator of the project takes care of maintenance.

Why would anyone want to pay more each month for electricity generated by sources that emit carbon and other pollutants?

Monthly programs, on the other hand, simply require signing a form and providing information about your power usage and utility account. Every month a fixed percentage gets lopped off your energy bill. While long-term savings are greater when you pay for panels upfront, monthly models offer a pre-determined discount on your bill from day one, making solar an easy financial choice for everyone. Why would anyone want to pay more each month for electricity generated by sources that emit carbon and other pollutants?

With either participation model, you can subscribe for as much of your power needs as you choose, usually up to 120%. Most programs allow you to take your share with you if you stay within your utility’s service area, and to sell it to another subscriber if you move out of that area.

The advantages: Besides being the only solar option for millions of us, in the community solar model someone else takes care of the whole process of installing and maintaining the panels, and many gardens require no upfront investment.

Solar Panel on roof

The drawbacks: With solar gardens, overall savings are not as high as when you install panels on your own roof. With current federal, state, and utility rebates, payback for rooftop solar can be under ten years versus around twenty years for community solar. Additionally, with most programs subscribers do not actually own the panels and will not get credited for the power they produce if they are kept online beyond the typical 25 years of a contract. Since no one can know for certain what the energy or solar landscape will look like a quarter-century from now, that probably shouldn’t be a significant consideration.

In the monthly subscription model, you’re getting a flat percentage savings from the start, so it’s really a no-brainer if you have the option and do not have the cash to install your own panels. Paying $1000 a year for your electricity? Sign up and save about $100 every year, more as rates rise. With no upfront investment and the deep satisfaction you get when you make your life more sustainable, everyone with access to one of these projects should jump to subscribe.

And you don’t necessarily have to choose between rooftop and community solar. When rebate programs and falling prices made our less-than-ideal roof workable for some solar panels, we learned that the most we could hope to produce was about 50 percent of our lower-than-average power usage. So in addition to pursuing rooftop panels, we joined our local community solar project to allow us to cover the remainder of our electricity needs.

After maxing out her rooftop capacity in Manitou Springs, Colorado, City Councillor Coreen Toll saw community solar not only as the perfect way to power her electric car, but also as a wise investment for her city. Because the surrounding mountains shade most roofs in Manitou Springs, solar opportunities in the city are limited. By subscribing to a local solar garden to power five municipal buildings, Manitou Springs should save up to $350,000 over the next twenty years, demonstrating, Toll says, that “it actually pays to be energy conscious!”

How Do I Find a Solar Garden?

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council updates its list of completed and pending community solar projects twice annually. Doing a web search with your state’s name and “community solar” might give you more up-to-the-minute information for the time being, but expect to hear more about it in your area as this brilliant idea gains traction nationwide.

If you don’t currently live near a solar garden, you can start one yourself. Mary Jo Cristofaro, one of the founding organizers of a community solar project in Northfield, Minnesota, began working last year with a group of other citizens interested in creating local, renewable energy options for their community. Partnering with a local solar developer, they put together a project that will power well over 1000 homes starting in the summer of 2016.

Though they have ridden what Cristofaro terms “a solar coaster” as the group has navigated changing state regulations, she is thrilled that the project allows people to “have a choice in the power provided to them and a choice in the health of the earth.” If you’re inspired to get such choices for your own community, check out the resources at the Solar Gardens Institute, which includes helpful information to get the community solar ball rolling.

Could you be powering your life with the sun? It may be far easier than you ever imagined.

References and Resources

Community Solar Gardens
U.S. Community Solar Market Outlook 2015-2020
National Community Solar Partnership
U.S. Department of Energy Community Solar FAQ

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Susannah Shmurak is a long-time member of her city’s Environmental Quality Commission and an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at her new blog, HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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Posted in Science and Transportation Tags , ,
  • Barbara Sher

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article.

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