What Is Community Solar, and Can It Help Your Neighborhood Go Green?

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Want to enjoy the benefits of solar energy but aren’t sure you can due to your current living situation? The community solar program may be the solution for you. Community solar programs offer a way for homeowners, renters and businesses alike to share in the benefits of solar energy, even if they can’t install solar panels of their own. Join us for a look into community solar programs, including how they work, to understand their benefits for the environment and for participants. 

What Are Community Solar Programs?

As interesting a concept as solar energy is, many Americans may still feel like it’s out of reach or unrealistic due to their living or financial circumstances. Some might be renters who can’t make modifications to the homes they’re living in, while others may be homeowners who don’t have a sufficiently sized roof or yard space for the panels. 

Even if the above considerations don’t come into play, installing solar panels can still be a pricey endeavor. Consumer Affairs estimates that the cost of installing solar panels can range from $5,000 on the low end to $40,000 or more on the higher end. Even after taking advantage of federal tax incentives, most Americans are looking at a $12,000 investment, on average — and that’s before factoring in additional costs like labor, operations and additional equipment. 

That’s where community solar programs come in. These solar projects allow multiple customers from the same area to all enjoy the benefits of an off-site solar panel array. Each community solar customer either buys into or leases a portion of the community solar panel system and gets a similar electric bill credit as someone who installed panels directly on their own property. This is a great option for anyone who wants to enjoy the benefits of solar power but might not be in the position to do so individually for a variety of reasons.

The Science Behind Community Solar

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One of the reasons solar energy has been getting so much attention lately is that the sun is one of humanity’s most underutilized resources. Part of the reason for this is that science is still attempting to find out more about solar energy and how best to harness it affordably. 

Solar power is still a relatively new concept when viewed through the lens of history. Its earliest roots date back to a French physicist named Alexander Edmond Becquerel, who discovered the photovoltaic (PV) effect in 1839. In simple terms, the PV effect is based on the discovery that when photovoltaic cells are exposed to sunlight, they generate an electric charge. 

At their most basic, today’s solar panels use PV panels to convert sunlight into energy by using photons to separate electrons from their atoms. This creates a flow of direct current electricity. Inverters then channel it into an alternating current, which is fed into an electricity grid and delivered directly into our homes and businesses. When this process is used in a community solar project, each participant earns electricity credits for the amount of solar energy the panels they own or lease produce each month. 

The Environmental Benefits of Community Solar

A 2019 study by LUT University and Energy Watch Group found that it would be completely feasible for the entire world to be powered by clean energy alone by the year 2050. The study found that, in 2015, only 2% of the earth’s energy came from solar power, with fossil fuels, coal and gases being the most-utilized energy sources. A shift to a renewable future, however, would depend heavily on solar power. Solar could generate 69% of all the earth’s energy, followed by wind energy, which would account for 18%.

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A renewable future could have vital benefits for Mother Nature in several key ways. Fossil fuels dramatically increase the quantities of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. These are a key cause of climate change and result in rising temperatures, more frequent and severe storms, and increases in wildfires, among other effects. 

In part because it’s a renewable resource, energy providers aim to use solar energy to help us curb our dependence on fossil fuels and ultimately reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. According to research by Energy Sage, using solar panels or other sources of clean energy can reduce the same amount of carbon emissions each year that would result from burning over 5,000 pounds of coal. This would make for a healthier planet, cleaner air and a far more sustainable future. 

The Benefits of Community Solar Programs for Participants

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Community solar programs have already gone a long way towards eliminating the idea that using solar power is only possible for a select few. By giving more people access to panel technology, solar sharing programs are providing many renters, low-resource customers and others the ability to participate in the ongoing renewable energy revolution for the first time. 

Aside from reducing your carbon footprint, joining a community solar program can also come with some nice financial perks, particularly in the summer when the sun generates more power than ever. In 2020, the IEA revealed in its World Energy Outlook report that “solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

Exactly how much you can save will largely depend on the programs in your area; many still operate under state rather than federal regulations. There are also various models to choose from depending on the community, from completely off-site solar farms to smaller grids owned by groups, such as the collective members of an apartment complex. In many states, participants still get two separate monthly energy bills — one from their regular utility company and another from the solar energy program. As community solar programs grow in popularity, however, many areas are looking into combining the two monthly bills into one. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential benefits of joining a solar community grid, then it’s time to look into projects near you.

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