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

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

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

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class

    Bike equity is a powerful tool for reducing inequality. Too often, cycling infrastructure is tailored only to wealthy white cyclists.

  2. A photo of a visitor posing for a photo with Elvis in downtown Nashville
    Perspective

    Cities: Don’t Fall in the Branding Trap

    From Instagram stunts to Edison bulbs, why do so many cities’ marketing plans try to convince people that they’re exactly like somewhere else?

  3. Children and adults sit on and around a deck with multi-colored chairs and giant LEGOs.
    POV

    If You Build It, They Might Not Come: Animating City Spaces

    Why do revamped areas remain barren after so much thought and money are put into redesigning them? A case study in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers clues.

  4. Transportation

    With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

    Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.

  5. Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Fiasco Will Cost the Company More Than It Costs New York

    The mega-company has bucked dealing reasonably with New York City, Seattle, and any community that asks them to pay for its freight.