ELPC 30 years celebration

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MeLena Hessel

The Whys of Community Solar

Many people can put solar panels on their rooftops. But many can’t. Community solar programs are for them.

With a phone call to an electrician and a quick dip into the bank account, many people can put solar panels on their rooftop. But many can’t. Community solar programs are for them.

The reasons to invest in solar are many. Solar power cuts bills. Solar power helps the environment. Solar power reduces the harmful pollution people once accepted as part and parcel of having electricity. It slows our impact on the worsening climate crisis. Costs are coming down, demand is rising and the technology is improving.

While ELPC has a nearly 30-year track record of promoting and expanding programs and policies to bring rooftop solar costs even lower, many people still won’t be able to install rooftop panels. They rent, or they move frequently, or their roof isn’t situated with adequate sunlight, or perhaps the most concerning reason: They can’t afford the initial outlay for a solar panel and aren’t eligible for financing.

There is ample research demonstrating that solar adopter incomes are higher than average. The sun doesn’t shine only on the wealthy. It shouldn’t shine only for them as well.

The Benefits of Community Solar

That’s where community solar programs come in. The specifics vary program by program, but the general theme is that people can subscribe to a share in a large, communal solar array and receive credits on their electricity bill for the energy it generates. Think of it like a community garden, but instead of vegetables, you generate your own solar energy. The larger your share, the larger your bill credit.

What is fantastic about community solar is that it does bring more access to more people and it can specifically turn something that was once a high-end, high-income product into something that helps low-income communities.

The benefits extend beyond lowered bills and the knowledge you’re helping the transition away from dirty fossil fuels. Community solar projects aggregate user demand and aggregate supply, and on the supply level that gets you access to economies of scale. It’s cheaper for the developer to buy tons of solar panels at once than it is to put one on your roof. And on the demand side, there are economic benefits to getting a really big customer to commit to 20 years for a big chunk of the project. Those projects provide stability for the solar farm enabling more, and more financially diverse, smaller, individual subscribers to cycle in and out.

All these economic benefits help get more renewable energy on the grid and can help us transition away from coal cheaper and faster. Community solar is a key component of this needed shift.

About a third of U.S. states have passed legislation allowing community solar projects, but not all projects are created equal. Some states’ rules benefit utility-owned community solar at the expense of projects owned by third-party developers. Not only is this less than ideal for the growth of a state’s clean energy economy, it also eliminates opportunities for community ownership and the benefits that can bring.  Other states have attempted to incorporate benefits for projects that target brownfield areas and other regions that have been particularly marred by past pollution.

Community Solar Leads to Energy Equity

It’s critical that when we put in place programs to enable community solar, we include a low-income component. These are the communities – often Black and brown communities – that have been historically left out of the clean energy revolution despite being hurt most by pollution and climate change. It’s vital that low-income communities be able to enjoy the benefits of renewable energy, at or beyond parity with their higher-income neighbors.

What is fantastic about community solar is that it does bring more access to more people and it can specifically turn something that was once a high-end, high-income product into something that helps low-income communities. But these communities are typically harder to serve. And there are plenty of other would-be customers to acquire. That’s why a low-income component is a must.

There are programs attempting to bring solar power to low-income communities literally from coast to coast, so this burden is not entirely on community solar. Community solar is just one way to help bring the benefits of renewable energy to communities historically denied them.

MeLena Hessel,

Senior Policy Advocate

MeLena Hessel is a Senior Policy Advocate working on clean energy development and access as well as clean transportation initiatives.

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