Despite its allure, adopting solar remains impossible for a surprising, even overwhelming, number of Americans. In fact, 80% of metered utility customers in the US cannot install solar on their rooftops due to building restrictions, shade on their property, low credit scores, prohibitive up-front costs or the fact that they are renters, among other reasons.
Many of these barriers to solar access cannot or will not change anytime soon. Fortunately, though, the solar industry has pioneered an emerging solution that breaks down these barriers to access: community solar.
In community solar installations (also known as solar gardens, community-sited energy, off-site solar or solar cooperatives), a utility-scale solar PV project of up to several megawatts is installed on a site that receives ample sunlight. Homeowners and businesses then buy either individual modules or a limited-term subscription to the electricity produced by a defined portion of the system. With the consent of the utility, these customers then receive a credit on their bills accounting for this electricity generation, allowing them to save money on electricity bills and have a stake in clean, renewable energy. The systems, in turn, are operated and maintained by companies such as Clean Energy Collective or REC Solar. These companies use economies of scale and their industry experience to design exceedingly cost-effective installations that ultimately make solar more accessible to a broader array of potential customer.
Community solar programs are quickly emerging in several states. Colorados Xcel Energy‘s Solar*Rewards program, for example, sold out within minutes of launching in August. After 30 minutes, applications were halted entirely after the utility received three times as many applications as the programs allowed capacity. This demonstrates the staggering interest that developers and consumers have in solar models that make solar ownership simple and affordable. Any utility customer (even high-rise tenants, renters, low-income residents and industrial facilities) can easily connect into their communitys solar garden. Whats more, community solar programs turn solar into an asset that can be sold, donated, or transferred when a customer moves to a new residence within that utility territory.
Utilities, too, have reason to be interested in community solar. Increasingly, utilities are expressing concern that solar program funding, generally collected from all ratepayer, is expended in a fashion which benefits only those able to utilize customer-sited solar. Community solar provides utilities an easy way to share the benefits of clean energy with a much-broader base of ratepayers, while minimizing the need for incentives and the costs of compliance with solar or renewable energy policy mandates. While Colorados Solar*Rewards Community program was the product of legislation (House Bill 10-1342, enacted in 2010), legislative authority is not strictly necessary for community solar to be a feasible and legal option for utilities.
Colorado clearly demonstrates that people want solar. They not only support community solar programs, but clamor for them. With forecasts of 3 to 4% annual hikes in electricity prices, there has never been a better time to make solar available for everyone.