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Community Solar 101: The Ultimate Guide to How Solar Communities Work

The renewable energy revolution takes many forms, and community solar is one of the fastest-growing and most exciting in the United States. This comprehensive guide will define community solar, explore its pros and cons, and examine everything you need to know about joining a project near you. 

What is community solar?

Today, community solar can be defined as any photovoltaic (PV) solar project or installation in which the electricity that is produced will be shared by multiple end users. Community solar projects are created to serve local customers with renewable electricity and are usually geographically constrained to municipality, state, or utility service area members.

What is a solar garden?

A community solar garden is one of the many common nicknames used to describe a shared solar project that creates electricity for multiple users. Other nicknames include shared solar projects, parks, solar power plants, community solar farms, and more. With new installations popping up across the country, these projects can be labeled in many different ways.

How does community solar work?

The main idea behind how a solar farm works is that participants do not need to install their own panels to go solar. Installed on an open field, large rooftop, or other expansive location, solar panels in a community project harness massive amounts of sunlight to produce usable electricity. This power is then sent into the electrical grid to reach program participants at home, work, or wherever it is needed.  

How does a typical community solar program work?

There are two basic models of how solar farms work: ownership and subscription-based pricing. 

In community solar ownership, participants can buy individual panels (or a portion of the project) to actually “own” all of the energy produced by their share of the installation. Community solar ownership is similar to buying your own energy system at home and is more likely to be offered by developers in the funding and construction phases of a new shared solar project. 

With subscription-based community solar models, participants will still purchase electricity based on the amount they use, in the same way, it works when buying ordinary utility energy. Here, most shared solar programs offer participants electricity at a lower rate than the utility, which may be fixed or raised year-over-year during a contractual period. 

What are the benefits of a community solar farm?

There are many community solar benefits to consider when evaluating whether or not to join a solar-sharing program. As mentioned above, community solar enables home and property owners to pivot to emission-free electricity and instantly reduce their carbon footprint without installing a system or changing much of anything.

Knowing this, community projects create access to low-cost solar energy for those who can’t install their own panels because they rent their property or other outside factors. At PPM Solar, we install residential solar panels for homes in Florida but encourage residents to explore community solar options if they cannot purchase a system of their own. 

How does a community solar subscription save you money?

With a community solar subscription, you can access an alternative to traditional utility power that is designed to save money. While grid-supplied electricity rates vary and often increase with time, community solar energy contracts typically lock in prices for power at lower-than-utility costs. 

Therefore, if you are spending less per watt on electricity with a community solar National Grid (or another provider), then you will be able to save more money on energy expenses for all of the power you buy to replace utility energy.   

Community solar subscription

Community solar vs Rooftop solar: which is better?

There is a lot of variance in how a solar community works from state to state, but comparisons with rooftop systems remain fairly consistent across the US. Although it is tough to say that one or the other is outright “better,” it is typically much easier to reduce long-term energy savings with a rooftop solar system rather than a community solar subscription. 

With a rooftop system, homeowners have more control over their solar energy and receive all of its benefits directly, rather than through a third-party provider. This includes the ability to add solar energy backup systems for homes with batteries, such as a Tesla Powerwall installation, charging EVs with renewable power, and more. 

Of course, for many, community solar is the better option for instant green energy and access to renewable power savings. If you cannot install solar panels on your home or business, owning part of a shared solar project is about as close as it gets to the maximum savings and benefit potential of purchasing your own PV system. 

Disadvantages of Community Solar

When looking at community solar pros and cons, shared solar programs have some disadvantages when weighing the benefits against other forms of renewable power adoption. To start, community solar programs are not even available in many states, while popular projects can also be full of participants and unable to accommodate new members. 

Financially, if you participate in a community project, then you are less likely to be able to take advantage of the renewable energy solar tax credit, which can only be redeemed by the owner of a system rather than a lessor or subscriber. Likewise, subscribers may not be able to earn and sell solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) unless they technically “own” their share of the panels.

Who can join a solar community?

To join a solar community, participants usually must be located near the panels themselves as electricity is lost when it moves long distances. Because of this, participants may be barred if they live too far from the solar garden. To provide more access to solar energy, some developers also offer “virtual” participation where customers can be located anywhere in the same utility service area.

There are also many housing projects in the United States that are being developed specifically around a shared solar power plant. In a solar energy community like this, participation may be limited only to buildings within a very specific area. For most projects, however, applications may be open to anyone connected to the electricity grid close by.  

Join a solar community

US government support for solar-powered communities

As community solar is one of the best ways to provide clean, low-cost energy to homes and businesses, the US government has shown significant support for renewable energy community development, particularly in the last five years. While the Solar Energy Technologies Office does not directly provide financial assistance, several programs support community solar through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

Summing Up

In conclusion, community solar projects are one of the best ways to access clean, low-cost electricity in the United States. Although participation is limited and projects may not be available to everyone, community solar can reduce the electricity spending and carbon footprint for renters, homeowners, and businesses, without installing panels on-site.

To save money on electricity expenses, PPM Solar installs small and large-scale PV systems in Florida for homes, organizations, community projects, and more. As a certified Tesla Car Charging Station partner, we look at every aspect of our customers’ electricity needs to deliver the best possible sustainable solutions. 

For more information or questions about your next solar project, please contact us today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to install solar panels on my roof?

No, if you are interested in joining a community solar program, you do not need to install solar panels on your roof to participate. Instead, most shared solar projects are supported by people who cannot install solar panels on their roofs due to various reasons including lack of property ownership, too much shade, and more.

How do I know if I am eligible for community solar power?

Eligibility requirements vary among community solar projects, so participation may be subject to a case-by-case basis. More often than not, physical location and electric utility providers are the most common determining factors for community solar eligibility. Projects are almost always geographically limited, and some may only be available specifically for residential or commercial customers.

Do solar community projects lower electricity costs?

Community solar programs are usually designed to lower electricity costs for their end users. As solar is the cheapest form of electricity in history, projects built at scale can help even more people lower their energy costs compared to traditional utility power using other resources.

Do I have to pay two energy bills with community shared solar?

Yes and no. You may have to pay two energy bills as a community solar subscriber, but that does not necessarily mean an increase in total costs. Whenever you join a shared program, you will continue to receive your ordinary electricity bill each month, but it will be much less than usual (or zero) with your solar credits applied. Your “second” bill would then be paid to the community solar provider at a rate similar to or less than that of the utility for the electricity purchased.

Do I have to switch my energy supplier to join a solar power community?

No, one of the best aspects of how community solar works is its ease to join. After you subscribe to a community solar project, you will still continue to receive electricity from the same utility with no need to switch your energy supplier. However, it is important to confirm that yourrnsolar community program can work in conjunction with your current electric utility before joining.

How do I get started with community solar?

To enroll in community solar, the process begins by identifying a project near you. This can be discovered by contacting your utility company, searching for projects near your zip code, or using resources like this community solar database from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). If you are interested in how to start a community solar project, we recommend this NREL guide which illustrates all of the steps and considerations necessary to begin your own endeavor.

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