How Community-Based Solar Programs Are Making Renewable Energy More Accessible
Community solar is an excellent option for people who cannot install rooftop solar panels. Instead, they buy or lease a share of a project and receive credits on their utility bill for the electricity it produces.
But these programs still need help for many low-income and environmental justice communities to access. Here are three reasons why.
While rooftop solar has grown tremendously in recent years, it still needs to be within reach for many people. For those who can’t invest in solar because of upfront costs, roof constraints, or rent their homes, community-based renewable energy programs, also known as “community distributed generation” (CDG), offer a solution.
With CDG, individuals and communities can purchase shares of a large solar project in their service territory. In turn, these subscribers receive credit on utility bills for some of the power produced. These credits can offset some of their electricity costs or be sold back to the grid for an additional revenue stream.
For example, where has been working to develop community solar projects, their team has made conscious decisions about how to market their program to ensure low-income residents can participate. These strategies include partnering with community organizations to host local meetings and conducting outreach at farmers’ markets and subway stations.
Some companies also support a new initiative connecting customers from National Grid’s existing bill assistance program to solar community projects in their service territory. This innovative model aims to streamline customer eligibility and enrollment for community solar, helping more people access the benefits of solar.
Lower Energy Bills
One of the main goals of community-based solar programs is to expand access to clean energy to people who can’t install their rooftop systems. That’s especially true for low- and moderate-income households, who spend more on energy bills than other consumers.
These people could benefit most from the lower electricity rates of community solar projects. The average residential community solar subscription saves customers on their electric bills over its life span. That modest savings can add up for households at or below twice the poverty level, who often face staggering energy costs compared to their income.
Moreover, community solar allows renters, co-op, and condo owners to reap the benefits of renewable energy generation. That can be a game changer for people who, in many cases, are forced to choose between paying their electric bill and eating or heating their homes.
While a growing number of states are making it easier for all residents to go solar, much work still needs to be done. Some barriers include mandatory credit checks, which exclude people with poor or no credit, and policies that prevent or limit the participation of low-income subscribers. The good news is that there are various ways to reduce these barriers and make it easier for everyone to go solar.
For low-income communities, switching from fossil fuels to clean energy is the best way to cut carbon emissions. But for many, the upfront cost of solar panels is out of reach. That’s where community solar can come in: Local farms pump clean energy into the local grid, and people — households, businesses, nonprofits, universities, and government buildings — sign up as subscribers to the project. They get credits on their electricity bills for the clean power their subscription produces, and the project gets closer to its renewable energy target.
For those who live in apartment complexes where roof space is limited or unavailable, community solar can offer a simple solution that cuts their electricity costs and helps to cut air pollution. In some states, where it works for Solar, a company developing community-based solar projects, they’re working on a project that will provide bill savings to residents and help cut black carbon, contributing to lung damage, infections, and COPD.
But making community solar available to the community as a whole will require focused policy support, deliberate program design, and engagement. State, city, and utility leaders, community-based organizations, community developers, nonprofits, and solar companies all have roles to play in ensuring that community solar benefits everyone. Whether through bill savings, jobs, or public tax revenue, community solar can have a ripple effect that lifts communities, reduces carbon emissions, and strengthens the grid.
In addition to bill savings and environmental benefits, community solar projects can generate jobs. Some of these jobs are in energy efficiency. In contrast, others support local workforce development and help develop the economic assets that can make communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change. The community ownership aspect of these projects can also help build wealth and a sense of equity for families in under-resourced areas.
Electric utilities or independent community-based developers can offer community solar, often backed by philanthropic donations and nonprofit partners. The community solar market is expanding rapidly, with more than 32 MW of low-income community solar in operation and seven times that amount in the pipeline.
Despite the potential for economic and environmental benefits, expanding community solar to all households remains a significant challenge. States are exploring a variety of policies and incentives to address this issue. For example, most states have incorporated “low-income” provisions in their solar community policies to offset the upfront costs of the systems for those who cannot afford to participate on their own.
To make community solar genuinely accessible to all, it will require a coordinated effort by states, cities, utilities, communities, nonprofits, private sector partners, and the energy industry. As the industry moves forward, lessons from past efforts to reach LMI customers must be learned so that clean energy is genuinely for all.