In the United States, community solar (also known as shared solar or solar gardens) has been on the rise and is expected to be a 0.5 GW annual market by 2020, according to GTM Research. Over the next 2 years, community solar deployments are expected to increase sevenfold, with an estimated 399 MW installed cumulatively in 2015 and 2016.
Designed specifically for homes unfit to reap the benefits of rooftop solar, community solar provides an option to renters who would be otherwise unlikely to invest in the high prices of rooftop solar. In a community solar setup, customers lease or own solar panels in a community solar garden. The energy produced is transferred to the utility, which then applies solar credits to the customer’s electric bill on a monthly basis based on the customer’s total share of the solar array. However, even with the growth of community solar gardens and the increase in accessibility for users, the costs remain high and are not always affordable.
Annual U.S. Community Solar Installations, 2010-2020E
(Source: GTM Research)
Making Community Solar Affordable for Everyone
GRID Alternatives, a non-profit headquartered in Oakland, California, works locally through 10 regional and affiliate offices in California, Colorado, the New York Tri-State Area, and the Mid-Atlantic, as well as internationally in Nicaragua. Grid Alternatives’ Colorado branch has developed the first solar garden in the United States exclusively for those with low or fixed incomes.
Utilities have partnered with Grid Alternatives’ Colorado for its community solar program, offering community solar to Colorado families at no out-of-pocket cost to the family. Requirements for the program’s participants include having a household income that is at or below 80% of an area’s median income and having residence within a utility service area that currently offers the program. Two solar gardens are listed on the company’s website. The first is a 29 kW array available to members of the Grand Valley Power service territory. The second (which lists panels as currently available) is 75 kW in size and is available to Xcel Energy customers who live in Jefferson County.
There are a number of programs that focus on making solar affordable for low-income families, but there is still room for growth in the low-income solar market. Unlike GRID Alternatives, most of these other organizations focus on rooftop solar, not community solar. The Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, for example, is a do-it-yourself organization that assists members in installing solar panels in an effort to cut the cost of labor. The Citizens Energy Solar Homes Program installs solar arrays on the roofs of low-income families in the Imperial Valley of California. Founded in January 2013, the Solar Homes Program provides the homeowner with a 20-year solar panel lease paid for by Citizens Energy, which, on average, saves the home owner 40%-50% of the cost of their electric bill.
Even with the number of programs that focus on bringing solar to low-income families, there is tremendous room for growth. The question remains if the rise of community solar will translate to an increase in solar opportunities for low-income families.