Community solar: Pricing models
Own our share of the solar garden: Pay cash or finance with a solar loan
It is common (and even required in some states) for community solar gardens to be jointly owned by participants. If you own a share in a solar garden, you will pay a set price for it – which you can either pay for up-front with cash or finance with a solar loan.
Under state Virtual Net Metering programs, once the solar garden is operational you will begin to receive solar net metering credits on your monthly power bill equivalent to your share (e.g. 2%) of the solar garden’s total electricity output. Solar Net Metering (the broader framework for Virtual Net Metering) ensures that each solar credit that you receive will reduce your power bill by 1 unit (kilowatt-hour, kWh), thus saving you money.
Once you recoup your initial investment through these savings, you will continue to receive free electricity in the form of solar credits until you sell your share or the project is decommissioned – which can be 25 or more years.
Based on our analysis to date, installing solar panels at your property will allow you to save significantly more money than a community solar garden. Community solar is best suited for consumers who cannot install solar on their roof and are primarily interested in the environmental benefits of going solar.
A note about 'ownership'
Even if you have signed your name on the back of your solar panels in the solar garden, remember that this is mostly symbolic. As the owner of a share in such a project, the important thing that you ‘own’ is the rights to the electricity that your share (percentage) of the solar garden produces. In fact, contracts place restrictions on what you may physically do with ‘your’ solar panels. For example, you may not take them home until the project is decommissioned.
This is a good thing in many ways: Once you’ve bought your share, your panels are worth much more in the solar garden than at home on your roof. In addition to the panels, a solar garden is comprised of many commonly shared, non-divisible components (such as inverters) that allow the panels to efficiently produce usable electricity for all owners.
Remember that ‘your’ individual panels are not directly linked to your power bill. Instead, overall monthly solar garden output is always divided between all owners according to each one’s share of ownership. So it’s in your interest – and everyone else’s – for your panels to stay put.
Evaluating an ownership share
- Shares of a community solar garden are variously marketed in terms of the number of ‘panels’, ‘kilowatts’ or ‘watts’ (1kiloWatt =1000 watts) or (sometimes) ‘leaves’. It’s important to pay attention to the total Size or wattage (W or kW) of the share that you are signing up for.
- How much will you pay per watt? Wattage is the measure that is indicative power output. Knowing the $/watt price will enable you to compare offers apples-to-apples.
- How much electricity will your share produce? If you are comparing different offers, you may find that one promises more solar power per watt than another—either because it uses solar tracking equipment, or because it is otherwise more optimally designed. How much value will this add?
- What is the estimated payback period for your share? How much you will save each year?
- The cost of a share includes not just panels, but also all the other equipment that makes up the solar garden, plus monitoring software (if offered), project administration and ongoing operations & maintenance costs. Does the offer take all of these into account?
Moving or selling your house
- If you move within the same utility area, you can usually continue to receive the solar net metering credits associated with your share. Exit from the program will involve either selling your share or gifting it to someone else.
Subscribe to the program, making ongoing payments for your solar energy
The second option for joining a community solar garden is a subscription. If you subscribe to a program, you will either pay for your solar electricity on a monthly basis through a type of Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), or in a one-time up-front payment. Most subscription-based community solar programs promise either immediate or eventual savings on your electricity bill, while some others may sell a subscription as a way to support clean electricity and not necessarily as a money-saver.
What to keep in mind for subscription-based programs
Will the program now or eventually save you money? Some programs focus on the environmental benefits of going solar, while others emphasize savings. The environmental benefits are the same whether you save or not, so you should try to save as much as possible if you have the choice.
In addition to the payments for the solar electricity, the following fees may be applicable under a subscription program:
- Membership fees: Understand any applicable membership or signup fees and how they will affect your potential savings
- Early termination fees: Most programs are likely to charge fees if you exit before the term is up. If you have to move before the contract term is finished, are you likely to have saved money? What is the point at which the savings you’ve earned will be greater than the total you will have spent, including exit fees?
These considerations are particularly important if you think you may end up moving out of state before the term is up (termination fees generally do not apply if you move within the same utility area). The program administrator may allow you to avoid termination fees by transferring your subscription to someone else who wishes to subscribe and who meets the program requirements (credit score, etc).
The table below provides an overview of the various subscription-based pricing models that you may encounter as you consider getting involved in a community solar garden.
|Discount over utility rate|
|Discount over utility rate||
|Escalating solar rate|
|Escalating solar rate||
|Flat per-kWh solar rate|
|Flat per-kWh solar rate||
|Flat monthly fee|
|Flat monthly fee||
|‘Lease to own’|
|‘Lease to own’||
|Partial up-front payment|
|Partial up-front payment||
|Full up-front payment|
|Full up-front payment||