Community solar, and how it can grow solar in Virginia

When people think about going solar, they probably picture solar panels going up on their homes or businesses. But this isn’t the only way to go solar. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.

Community solar takes many forms, but in general, it allows individuals or businesses to buy or lease panels, or invest in shares of an off-site solar system. Community solar subscribers then receive a credit on their electric bill based upon their share of the solar system. This is just as it would be if the system were on an individual’s own roof.

PrintCommunity solar projects have the potential to significantly expand the number of people and businesses that can benefit from solar energy. In fact, a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found projects like these could account for half of all new solar added over the next five years.

There are several reasons why community solar can help bring the benefits of solar to more people. Roughly three quarters of rooftops are not suited to solar. This may be because of roof age, size, or tree shading. Add to this number people who rent, or live in condominiums, and the market for community solar grows.

Aside from people who can’t go solar for structural reasons, there are also those who can’t afford solar’s full up front cost. Community solar can benefit low-income families, students, and others by providing a solar option that does not require the investment of thousands of dollars for a single system.

A good example of a community solar project is one we featured a few months ago. The BARC electric cooperative developed a community solar system that allows its customers to purchase shares of a community-owned system (totaling up to 25% of the customers’ electric use). Program participants pay a 2¢ premium for the electricity that comes from the system. That rate is locked in for 20 years. This allows participants to hedge against projected electricity rate increases. Project subscribers should see a return from their participation in 5-10 years as traditional electricity rates rise.

In this way, community solar can give control to electricity customers, much like going solar on their own homes can.

Unfortunately, most Virginians do not yet have the option to participate in community solar. The exception would be those Virginians who receive their electricity from an electric cooperative that offers a community solar option. So far, BARC is the only Virginia cooperative to offer community solar. Cooperative members should urge their board of directors to look into community solar as an option. Hopefully, as lawmakers see community solar is viable, they will change Virginia’s laws so that we can all benefit from community solar.

Virginia lawmakers will consider legislation next session that would offer a utility administered ‘community solar program’ . In a sense, this is a notable step forward. Even just a few years ago, utilities completely rejected the idea. We now see signs that they are coming around due to the tremendous support for solar in Virginia and our demand for more solar options. That being said, it will be important to watch how the program is actually structured and to make sure that such a program benefits the community and participants.

There are several things we as solar supporters should look for in a future utility-backed community solar program:

  1. Is it a good economic deal for participants?

The community solar program should enable participants to lower their electric bills by joining, or offer a good economic value or investment.

  1. Is it customer friendly?

The community solar program should make it easy for participants to sign up and unsubscribe. If participants move within their utility’s service territory, they should be able to transfer their share to their new residence. Also, it should be easy for participants to understand what they are paying for. Participants should be made aware if there will be on-going charges for maintenance or other costs as a result of participating.

  1. Does it provide community benefits?

A key trait of community solar is that the shared-ownership nature of the system provides benefits to the community beyond the electricity it generates. This includes job creation, providing added grid resilience, and an opportunity for low-income families to benefit from solar energy.

Additional resources:

Shared Renewables HQ

    • An information center for shared renewable energy projects and policies across the U.S. Allows you to view policies by state and tracks shared renewable energy projects around the country.

DOE Guide to Community Shared Solar

    • A resource for those who want to develop community shared solar projects, from community organizers or solar energy advocates to government officials or utility managers.

IREC Community Renewables Model Program Rules

    • A guide from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council that outlines model program rules for community-scale renewables.

Solar Gardens Institute

    • An organization dedicated to helping communities pool their resources and go solar. Their website includes a map of shared projects and organizations around the country.

Richmond Community Solar Feasibility Study

  • This report from Virginia Commonwealth University reviews several examples of ways to deploy community solar. It outlines four community solar case studies, investigates perspectives on these issues via interviews with policy experts in Virginia, and uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping to determine the feasibility of developing a community solar project in Richmond.