Over the past decade, solar has multiplied, driven by technological advances, declining costs, and supportive policies and programs. A critical pathway to accelerating solar deployment is through community solar gardens. These local solar facilities can be owned and operated by a community group and receive financial credit for the electricity their panels produce.
Community solar gardens provide a platform for scalable renewable energy solutions that can be incorporated into existing projects, new developments, and even non-traditional uses. These gardens can provide electricity to communities and businesses that otherwise would not be able to use solar power or access it at an affordable rate. Compared to rooftop solar, community solar gardens can be installed almost anywhere, even when installing roof panels is difficult or impossible. They’re also an ideal option for consumers who need help installing their solar panel systems, such as renters or people with poor roofs or buildings that don’t meet building codes.
A community solar garden is an array of solar panels that generates energy and sells it to a local utility. It typically includes an operator who contracts with consumers (members) to receive credit on their utility bill for the energy they consume from the solar garden. To ensure maximum production, developers consider roof size and microclimates when developing a solar garden. Additionally, they look at the size of potential host properties and factor in how much electricity the property can produce in the future.
Solar energy is a renewable resource that can cost electricity less than conventional power sources. However, several factors can impact the overall cost of a solar installation. For example, the supply chain for raw materials can be challenging, especially in a global economy where trade conflicts are common. Another factor affecting solar energy costs is the development of new technology that makes solar panels more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. That can reduce the upfront cost of a solar installation and its lifetime energy costs. One of the main ways to reduce these costs is through community solar gardens, which are centrally located solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that produce renewable energy. These gardens are designed to provide solar access for residents and businesses who might need a roof to support a rooftop installation or need more space for an on-site solar installation. The electricity produced by a community garden is distributed to surrounding homes and businesses. Each subscribing customer receives a credit on their electric bill for their share of the production. This creates value for all project stakeholders, from landowners to residents and organizations.
Community solar gardens can be a great way for people to get solar energy without the hassle of installing their rooftop panels. By subscribing to a garden, consumers can reduce their utility bills and get credits on their electricity bills for the power generated by the solar garden. Solar’s environmental benefits include using clean energy, reduced emissions, and improved air quality. Switching to renewable energy sources reduces reliance on fossil fuels responsible for climate change. This also helps enhance air quality and protect water from being contaminated by pollutants produced in coal, natural gas, and oil.
Fossil fuels have been used for generations, but they have caused significant environmental and health impacts. When burned for energy, they release carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants into the air. By contrast, solar uses only sunlight to produce electricity. In most cases, solar gardens can be integrated into the electric grid to meet the needs of customers and utilities. This saves utility money on maintenance and repair costs. It also supports the grid and allows them to meet any renewable portfolio standards their state may have. Depending on the model, a utility, nonprofit, or cooperative may own community solar gardens. Each model has unique costs, benefits, responsibilities, risks, and legal concerns.
Community solar gardens are an excellent way for communities to engage in renewable energy development. Unlike rooftop solar, they are not installed on homes and businesses but in public spaces like parks, parking garages, and farm fields. Utilities or nonprofits can own them, and investors and individuals can finance them. They can also be managed by community members joining a business enterprise to develop and manage the garden. These projects are often located in areas impacted by the growth of dirty fossil fuel plants, where air pollution is most prevalent, and residents suffer the highest health impacts. They are a critical means of reducing pollution in these communities and providing access to affordable clean energy. Community solar gardens are an excellent way for people to get involved in the renewable energy industry and contribute to a cleaner future. But as with any energy initiative, they can only succeed if barriers to participation are addressed. These include indifference, participation fatigue, a culture of non-participation, language barriers, elite capture, and local conflicts.