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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