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The Community Solar Industry Gets a Voice of Its Own

A new national organization will push to make it easier to get solar power when it can’t go on your own roof.

The Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association's community gardens collect power for customers in Rockford, Minn. (AP Photo / Jim Mone)

It used to be that if you couldn’t afford to install solar panels, you couldn’t get energy from them. The same happened if you didn’t own a house to put panels on, or if you lived in a condo where the roof wasn’t yours to develop. That started changing in 2006 with the birth ofcommunity solar,” which allows people to buy a stake in a solar installation elsewhere and earn credits on their electricity bills for the energy it produces.

But community solar can’t just happen on its own—it requires a brave new world of utility policy changes that are too complicated for the average consumer to understand. And the nonprofits and solar companies advocating for changes had a tough time balancing their daily work with the additional work required to drive new legislation at the local and state levels.

That’s why a group of community solar providers banded together this week to launch the Coalition for Community Solar Access, which will spearhead nationwide advocacy for the kinds of policies needed for this market to grow.

Solar is really still available to a select class of energy consumers,” Executive Director Jeff Cramer tells CityLab. “What community solar offers is the opportunity to go solar for literally all Americans.”

Rooftop solar has been spreading like wildfire over the past few years, but 49 percent of households can’t install their own solar photovoltaic panels, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab. For anyone who rents, or has too much shade, or moves frequently and would lose the rooftop investment, community solar offers an alternative. It also has economic justice implications, because it enables buy-in at much lower costs than a private rooftop installation.

There are many different models for community solar (this NREL paper offers a handy guide to the variations), but the core concept is that numerous people subscribe to a central solar installation and receive a credit on their electricity bill for a share of the power generated each month. In the decade since the first community solar project went live, says Cramer, close to 100 projects have come online in 25 states.

Industry groups for solar energy already exist, but they cater to different concerns, including smaller-scale rooftop solar and the larger utility-scale developments, says Sara Baldwin Auck, regulatory program director at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Community solar falls somewhere in between. “The policy and program design issues confronting the community solar market are still relatively new and less familiar, and they often require more nuanced approach,” she writes in an email.

The idea behind CCSA is to pool the resources of the various community solar providers to create industry best practices and lobby at the community and state levels for policies that will help the market grow, says Board Chair Hannah Masterjohn. The main policy goal is a fair bill-credit mechanism, which ensures the customer gets a benefit on their electricity bill equivalent to what their share of the solar array produces. This is akin to the broader debate over net-metering; plenty of utilities want to credit electricity from solar at a lower rate than the electricity they sell.

In a market where the laws and utilities favor community solar, it can work just like a Geico commercial, Masterjohn says: You go online and subscribe in about 15 minutes. So far, only 14 states have passed laws enabling community solar, though, so CCSA has its work cut out.

About the Author

  • Julian Spector
    Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.