Rooftop vs. community solar: What you need to know

There are two primary ways to benefit from solar energy: installing a solar panel system on your property or participating in a community solar project. If you install solar at your home or business, you'll most likely install a rooftop solar panel system, using that otherwise empty space above your head to produce electricity. If you aren't a good fit for solar, though, community solar allows you to still access the benefits of solar by offering the opportunity to subscribe to, or even purchase a part of, a larger solar panel project in your area. 

When comparing your solar options, and specifically rooftop vs. community solar, there are a few main things to keep in mind: what are you buying, how are you paying for it, what benefits will you receive, what are the environmental benefits, and what happens when you move/no longer want to participate? 

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When you buy a rooftop solar panel system, it's pretty clear what you're paying for: your solar panels and other equipment will physically be installed on your property, and the electricity generated by your solar panels will go straight into your home (after passing through an inverter).

What you are buying with rooftop and community solar.

It can be harder to conceptualize what you get when participating in a community solar project, but it doesn't have to be! When you buy into a community solar project, you are paying for the power produced by the solar panels in the community solar farm, just like you're paying for solar energy with rooftop solar. The only difference is that instead of solar power being produced locally at your home or business, the power is produced off-site with community solar. It's the remote working equivalent of solar! 

There are two primary questions to answer to understand the different options for paying for rooftop and community solar: are you going to own the solar, and do you plan on paying for the solar upfront or monthly? 

With rooftop solar, you can either own or lease your system. If you own your solar panel system, you own all of the physical equipment (i.e., solar panels, inverters, and more), and you'll see the largest financial and environmental benefit from your solar panels over their 25+ lifetime. You can purchase your system upfront or with a solar loan, paying for your installation monthly, as with car payments or a mortgage.

If you lease your system, a third party owns the solar panel system installed on your roof, and you purchase the power generated by the panels every month. Paying for a leased solar panel system is similar to paying for community solar. 

Most community solar projects are designed via a subscription model: you pay monthly for the electricity produced by the community solar project. The way the subscription works, and the reason it's an attractive investment, is that the solar electricity you purchase from a community solar project is sold at a discounted price compared to your utility charges. For instance, over the year, the electricity you buy from community solar could cost 10 percent less than what you pay from your utility.

How you pay for rooftop and community solar.

In some cases, community solar projects may also allow you to purchase a portion of the project outright, i.e., a certain number of panels. In those instances, you may pay for your share like an owned rooftop solar system: upfront or financed with a loan over time.

With community solar, the financial benefits are straightforward: You're replacing what you pay your utility for electricity with a lower rate for electricity purchased from the community solar farm. Doing so saves you 5-15% on your annual electricity bills.

With rooftop solar, you also benefit financially by using solar electricity to offset what you would have used from your utility company. However, you'll likely see higher financial savings, especially if you pay for the system upfront.

Additionally, with rooftop solar, you may be eligible for rebates and incentives from the federal government, state government, or even your utility. What's more, installing solar on your home has the potential to increase the value of your home: a study from Zillow found that homes with solar sell for 4 percent more than similar homes without solar.

Financial benefits you receive with rooftop and community solar.

Both rooftop and community solar allow you to offset or avoid electricity produced by fossil fuels, leading to carbon emission reductions and improved local air quality. 

One thing to consider when comparing rooftop and community solar is that rooftop solar efficiently uses otherwise 'empty' space by taking advantage of unused square footage on your rooftop. Community solar requires much more acreage and space than rooftop solar, so it's always a good idea to see what type of land it's built on: otherwise unusable land (like a former landfill) or land that could have another use. 

Environmental benefits of rooftop and community solar.

If you end up selling your home with solar, you'll have to install solar again at your new home: unlike your favorite couch, you can't take your solar panels with you from home to home. 

With community solar, though, if you move to another home within the same region and, specifically, within the same utility service territory, you'll likely remain subscribed to the same community solar project. If you're moving out of state or somewhere not covered by your same utility, you can either cancel your subscription or pass it to the new owner of your home.

What happens if you move with rooftop and community solar.

The most important thing to remember is that both rooftop and community solar are ways to provide affordable electricity for your home, help the environment, and save money at the same time. What's not to like?

EnergySage is the nation's online solar marketplace. When you sign up for a free account, we connect you with local solar companies who compete for your business with custom solar quotes tailored to your needs. Over 10 million people visit EnergySage annually to learn about, shop for and invest in solar. Sign up today to see how much solar can save you.

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