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What is community solar?

Last updated 7/16/2021

As much as we want to see solar panels on every single roof in the country, we (begrudgingly) accept that’s not quite possible. But for anybody who can’t install solar panels on their property, or would prefer not to, community solar makes it possible to still receive the benefits of solar.

A community solar project is a large, central solar power plant, whose electricity is shared by more than a single property. While the size of a residential solar installation is measured in kilowatts, community solar projects are measured in megawatts, meaning that a single community solar project can power hundreds or even thousands of homes. 

Since you don’t need to have a suitable rooftop for solar to participate in a community solar project, it’s a great option for renters and people who live in shared housing. By purchasing a share of or subscribing to a community solar project, everybody can benefit from solar while paying less for electricity.

community solar

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What are the benefits of community solar?

There are two primary benefits of community solar: first, community solar makes it possible for more people to access the benefits of solar power; and, second, participants in community solar projects lock in savings on their electricity bills every month. 

Financial benefits of community solar

financial benefits of community solar

Community solar is made possible by a policy called “virtual net metering” (VNM). Like net metering for rooftop solar power, virtual net metering policies allow households or businesses to receive the net metering credits associated with a renewable energy project installed at a remote location. 

The same way net metering allows you to use the solar produced on your roof to offset any electricity you pull from the grid when the sun isn’t shining, virtual net metering allows you to use solar energy produced at a remote location to offset electricity you pull from the grid, hence “virtual.” 

The end result of virtual net metering is that community solar participants are able to reduce the amount they pay for electricity every month, locking in savings for years to come. 

Community solar participation models

Community solar projects and programs are typically offered in two formats:

  1. Ownership: This model allows participants to purchase a select number of the panels or a portion of the community solar project. When you buy into a community solar project, you’ll get electric bill credits/savings from all of the power produced by the solar panels you own.
  2. Subscription: This model allows participants to become subscribers and pay a lower price on your electric bill each month. Instead of owning panels or a share of the project, you are just purchasing electricity at a lower rate than you would pay to purchase electricity from your utility.

Ownership-based projects

Ownership-based community solar models are very similar to purchasing a rooftop system—except, of course, that no system will be installed on your roof or property. Instead, you own a set number of panels in the array or a certain number of kilowatts (e.g. 5kW) out of the solar project’s total capacity.

For these types of projects, you can only purchase enough shares to meet your annual electricity usage, and no more. The project’s actual output will be credited to you on your electricity bill.

'Subscription'-based projects

Subscription based community solar projects are the most common, and the most popular option on the EnergySage Community Solar Marketplace

Program details vary from project to project, but most require no upfront fees to join and offer bill savings right away. In this case, subscribing to a community solar project is like signing up for a green power program, except that instead of paying a premium for clean electricity, community solar subscribers typically pay a lower price for their electricity.

Depending on your state or utility company, you may need to live a certain distance from the community solar project (i.e., within your utility's coverage area) in order to participate in the community solar program. Many community solar companies also place a limit on how much electricity you can receive from the project (i.e., no more than 120 percent of your average monthly usage).

Most subscription-based programs are easy to sign up for, and easy to cancel. See if there are open projects in your area with the EnergySage Community Solar Marketplace.

ways to participate in community solar

What community solar is not

Community solar is similar to, and often confused with, other types of clean energy electricity rates and incentives, such as:

  • Group Purchasing: Group purchasing deals allow a large number of households or businesses to purchase their own individual solar systems at bulk rates through negotiations with a solar installation company, for instance, Philadelphia’s Solarize program. Unlike a community solar project, in which all participants benefit from one central system, in a group purchasing program, each participant purchases their own individual solar projects.
  • Green Power: Green power rates allow a utility’s customers to purchase electricity from renewable energy generation sources—mainly large-scale hydro, wind, and solar. Those who sign up for green power programs generally do so to ‘do the right thing,’ rather than to save money on their power bills, since these options often come at a price premium. Importantly, participation in a green power plan does not necessarily result in the build-out of additional renewable power plants, as the electricity may be sourced from pre-existing facilities. Most community solar projects, on the other hand, are developed with a primary aim of saving participants money on their power bills.
  • Crowdfunding / Online Solar Investment Platforms: Some companies have opened up renewable energy investment through online platforms that allow you to invest in new solar installations. These types of projects are purely an investment: you don’t receive the electricity from any of these projects to offset your bill. Note: the gains from these projects are typically taxable (as investments), whereas electricity bill savings from a community solar project are not taxable.
Start your community solar journey today with EnergySage

EnergySage is the nation's online community solar marketplace: when you sign up for a free account, we connect you with developers in your area offering local solar farm subscriptions to help you save money. Over 10 million people come to EnergySage each year to learn about, shop for and invest in solar. Start browsing projects near you today.

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