NEWS Half of Americans can’t install solar panels. Here’s how they can plug into the sun.

Half of Amer­i­cans can’t install solar panels.

Here’s how they can plug into the sun.

No roof, no solar power.

That has been the dispir­it­ing equa­tion shut­ting out roughly half of all Amer­i­cans from plug­ging into the sun.

But sign­ing up for solar soon might be as easy as sub­scrib­ing to Net­flix. Scores of new small solar farms that sell clean, local elec­tric­ity directly to cus­tomers are pop­ping up. The setup, dubbed “com­mu­nity solar,” is designed to bring solar power to peo­ple who don’t own their own homes or can’t install pan­els — often at prices below retail elec­tric­ity rates.

Clean elec­tric­ity for less money seems a bit too good to be true. But it reflects a new real­ity: Solar energy prices are falling as pri­vate and pub­lic money, and new laws, are fuel­ing a mas­sive expan­sion of small-​​scale com­mu­nity solar projects.

Screenshot 2023-10-10 at 10.48.03 AM

 Find­ing a sub­scrip­tion to one, how­ever, can feel like try­ing to score Tay­lor Swift tick­ets: They’re on sale, but only a lucky few can buy them. At least 22 states have passed leg­is­la­tion encour­ag­ing inde­pen­dent com­mu­nity solar projects, but devel­op­ers are just begin­ning to expand.Most exist­ing projects are booked.

At the moment, com­mu­nity solar projects in the United States gen­er­ate enough elec­tric­ity to power about 918,000 homes — less than 1 per­cent of total house­holds, accord­ing to the Solar Energy Indus­tries Asso­ci­a­tion, a non­profit trade group.

But as more states join, and the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s “Solar for All” pro­gram pours bil­lions into fed­eral solar power grants, more Amer­i­cans will get the chance.

Should you take it? I took a look.

        Solar pan­els on Barb and Ger­ald Bauer’s Min­nesota farm in 2021. (Jim Mone/​AP)
What is com­mu­nity solar?

While projects exist in most states, they are highly con­cen­trated: More than half are in Mass­a­chu­setts, Min­nesota and New York. These might be on a condo roof, or on open land like the 10-​​MW Fresno com­mu­nity solar farm, on a city-​​owned plot sur­rounded by agri­cul­tural land. Most are small: 2 megawatts of capac­ity on aver­age, about enough to power 200 to 400 homes.

Devel­op­ers tend to finance their projects through investors or banks, and sign up cus­tomers dur­ing con­struc­tion. If there are projects in your utility’s ser­vice area, you can sub­scribe to elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by a cer­tain share of the project’s solar panels.

The elec­trons that ulti­mately flow into your home aren’t nec­es­sar­ily from your panel. They are fed into the local grid, which pow­ers house­holds through­out your ser­vice area. Most allow sub­scribers to start or can­cel their solar sub­scrip­tion at any time, or some­times with a few months’ notice. The renew­able energy mar­ket­place Ener­gySage and the non­profit Solar United Neigh­bors con­nect cus­tomers to com­mu­nity solar projects in their region.

Peo­ple gen­er­ally receive monthly cred­its for elec­tric­ity pro­duced by their share of solar pan­els. These are sub­tracted from their total elec­tric­ity bill or cred­ited on future bills. If cus­tomers pro­duce more than they con­sume, those cred­its roll over. If they pro­duce less, cus­tomers pay the dif­fer­ence. Sub­scribers on aver­age save about 10 per­cent on their util­ity bill (the range is 5 per­cent to 15 per­cent).

These eco­nom­ics are pro­pelling the indus­try to record heights. Between 2016 and 2019, com­mu­nity solar capac­ity more than quadru­pled to 1.4 gigawatts. By the end of this year, energy research firm Wood Macken­zie esti­mates, there will be 6 GW of com­mu­nity solar. And the Energy Depart­ment wants to see com­mu­nity solar reach 5 mil­lion house­holds by 2025.

The eco­nom­ics are strongly on the side of doing this,” says Dan Kam­men, an energy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley. “It’s now cheaper to build new solar than to oper­ate old fos­sil [fuel plants]. … We’re at the take­off point.”

                       Pho­to­voltaic pan­els at a solar field in White­wa­ter, Calif., in 2021.                                                                                            
                                                                  (Bing Guan/​Bloomberg)
Who should get it?

Com­mu­nity solar, also called “solar for renters,” is for any­one. But if you’re a home­owner, it won’t max­i­mize your savings.

On aver­age, sav­ings from com­mu­nity solar amount to about $100 per year for the aver­age ratepayer. Rooftop solar arrays may save home­own­ers more than $1,000 annu­ally, esti­mates EnergySage.

But it brings other advan­tages. It’s a sub­scrip­tion you can walk away from at any time with no upfront invest­ment. And your fixed rate or dis­count off pre­vail­ing elec­tric rates is usu­ally locked in for at least a decade. Res­i­den­tial elec­tric­ity rates, mean­while, have jumped about 17 per­cent since 2018.

The biggest ben­e­fit may be expand­ing access to clean energy to the roughly half of U.S. con­sumers and busi­nesses not able to install their own solar pan­els. “The great promise of com­mu­nity solar is it allows every­one to be part of the energy tran­si­tion,” says Bran­don Smith­wood of Dimen­sion Renew­able Energy, a com­pany that has financed more than 1,000 MW of solar projects, “and not feel they’re being left behind.”

How to buy

If you live in a state with a robust com­mu­nity solar mar­ket, sub­scrib­ing is easy.

Mar­ket­places like Ener­gySage aggre­gate projects sign­ing up new sub­scribers. I typed in a Zip code in St. Paul, Minn., a hotbed of com­mu­nity solar activ­ity, and was pre­sented with six projects offer­ing sav­ings of $68 to $135 per year, along with 10 tons of green­house gases.

The Ener­gySage com­mu­nity solar mar­ket­place. (EnergySage/​TWP)

The mar­ket­place allows you to quickly com­pare details such as fees, loca­tions and billing. Once I selected a project, I could cre­ate an account, link this to my util­ity and start a subscription.

To get the best terms, say project devel­op­ers and non­profit groups, you should look for con­tracts that uphold a few key terms:

  • Get a dis­counted elec­tric­ity rate: Com­mu­nity solar projects tend to offer 5 per­cent to 15 per­cent off pre­vail­ing elec­tric­ity rates.
  • Ensure you can can­cel any time: Sell­ers should allow you to can­cel your sub­scrip­tion imme­di­ately or within a few months to final­ize cred­its on your bill.
  • Avoid can­cel­la­tion fees: Choose a plan that doesn’t force you to pay if you want to end your subscription.
  • Source close to your home: Ide­ally, projects should be within 10 or 15 miles of where you live, says Jeff Cramer, CEO of the Coali­tion for Com­mu­nity Solar Access. This ensures that you decar­bonize your local grid.

For mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing in places with abun­dant com­mu­nity solar such as Min­nesota, Col­orado, New York and Mass­a­chu­setts, find­ing projects is rel­a­tively easy.

But I live in Cal­i­for­nia, where the mar­ket has stag­nated amid unfa­vor­able poli­cies and fierce oppo­si­tion from util­i­ties. While that may change — Cal­i­for­nia, like many other states, is poised to enact poli­ciesenabling more com­mu­nity solar — I need to buy elec­tric­ity now.

I still have options — they’re just not as attrac­tive. Green power plans, or retail elec­tric­ity plans sold by third par­ties in about 20 states, are often pricier, and most don’t finance new renew­ables directly since they often just buy renew­able energy cred­its from exist­ing projects.

Com­mu­nity choice aggre­ga­tion is another one. Cities or local gov­ern­ments buy power inde­pen­dently for local res­i­dents and busi­nesses, and rely on util­i­ties to dis­trib­ute the elec­tric­ity, which is often cleaner than the stan­dard mix. CCA can be less expen­sive, but not always. It served about 5 mil­lion cus­tomers in 10 states in 2020, accord­ing to the EPA.

In the end, I signed up for CCA. It was cheaper than my local utility’s stan­dard rate. I paid a small monthly pre­mium of about $3 to source 100 per­cent green power.

But if com­mu­nity solar comes to town, I look for­ward to sub­scrib­ing to my own solar pan­els — and pay­ing less.

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