So far, only a small number of the states with policies that support community solar gardens have markets that could be described as competitive. Consumer choice is still limited, with most consumers having at most one community solar garden offering available to them, if any.
But community solar markets are poised for expansion in about a dozen key states. Massachusetts, Colorado and Vermont are among those where options are growing. If you are a National Grid customer in Massachusetts, for example, it's already possible to get community solar quotes from several companies.
This article will help you evaluate and compare community solar garden offers, providing advice on what to look for and keep in mind.
If you're considering community solar, you probably hope save money on your power bill, as you would if you were looking into rooftop solar. While all offerings present essentially the same environmental benefits, some community solar projects promise bigger savings than others. And even if you only have one option, you should clearly understand its value proposition before signing anything. And don’t forget to compare it to the option of installing solar panels at your property.
Below are some factors to consider and questions to ask yourself and a community solar garden salesperson when reviewing community solar project offer.
Participation in a community solar farm should offer you certainty about your electricity prices. This should also mean certainty about how much solar power your share of the array will produce. Does the agreement guarantee a minimum level of solar production per year, and over the life of the system/subscription contract? If the system generates less power than expected from year 1, for example, will you have to wait until year 20 before being reimbursed?
With community solar, you will be signing up for a 'share' (in kilowatts, kW) of the whole community solar project's capacity. Your share's solar output will usually be higher in summer, lower in winter. Your electricity consumption will also vary month-to-month. This means that in some months your overall electricity costs may be more than they would have been without solar, while in others they will be lower. At the end of the year, you’ll want the two to balance out (you can carry solar credits over from one month to the next).
Most community solar providers will recommend that you size your system to meet approximately 100% of your current annual electricity needs. In some cases, however, you may be able to ask to have a smaller or slightly larger share, depending on your circumstances.
For instance, if you anticipate that your electricity usage might actually fall in the future, aim to undersize your share in the project (usually easier to do this before signing up than after). You don't want to be stuck paying for solar power you don't need - especially if you're in a subscription-based program (see below).
Similarly, if you expect your electricity usage to increase in the future, you may want to buy a larger share. However, if you do so – and don’t end up using the extra electricity – you may not be able to recover those extra costs.
Purchasing a share in a community solar project is like making an investment in a rooftop solar system: You are making a payment now in order to save money on power bills in the future.
We recommend you compare the cost & savings of installing solar panels on your property before making a decision to buy a share of a solar garden.
Subscription-based programs come in a variety of forms, but they can all be compared by looking at how large a savings they offer over a set period of time. Some programs offer more certainty about future savings than others. Penalty fees for early termination of a contract will also vary.