How Community Solar Projects Are Empowering Local Communities

Community solar projects, farms and gardens enable households without rooftops to benefit from clean energy. These off-site solar installations produce electricity for subscribers, who receive a credit on their utility bills.

To best serve LMI households, projects can include a guaranteed rate of bill savings in subscription contracts and provide accessible, real-time support for consumers.

Increased Community Investment

In community solar, multiple households subscribe to a local energy project that generates renewable electricity, and the participants receive credit on their utility bills for the power they contribute. This is a powerful and accessible model for solar energy, allowing consumers to reduce their energy bills and support clean energy without having to install a system on their rooftop or pay upfront subscription costs.

A key aspect of equitable community solar is the involvement of community members up front in shaping project design and implementation. Authentic engagement can include participatory design sessions and extend to training programs and apprenticeships that recruit local workers and provide pathways for career development at high-quality jobs with family-sustaining wages.

Community solar projects can also involve community wealth-building and governance structures that give participants a direct ownership stake in the project and cooperative organization. This can be achieved by establishing community project teams or advisory councils that allow participants to vote on key decisions and elect board members.

Accessible community solar programming can also be enhanced by partnering with nonprofit organizations that support outreach, engagement, and enrollment. For example, the solar for all program utilizes local community-based organizations as grassroots educators to connect income-eligible communities with potential community solar projects. This can help avoid pitfalls like unrecognized energy providers or additional energy contracts that are off-putting for LMI households.

Economic Development

Community solar is an opportunity to build local economic development through jobs, contracts, and revenue sharing. Successful and equitable community solar projects prioritize the interests of the communities they serve through inclusive engagement and representation in the project’s design process.

Several barriers prevent low- and moderate-income households from accessing community solar. These barriers are often rooted in the systemic inequities of our energy sector that place more burdens on disadvantaged communities, including low-income families and people of color. Community solar can address these inequities by bringing clean energy benefits to the same neighborhoods that have historically experienced pollution from dirty fossil fuel plants and their associated health impacts.

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WRI is working to advance various solutions for accelerating community solar for low- and moderate-income customers, from expanding utility-led community solar programs that offer bill credits to subscribers to collaborative initiatives between community organizations, nonprofits, electric utilities, and solar developers to support income-eligible households. This work requires a strong partnership between state, city, and utility regulators, community groups, nonprofits, and financial institutions.

In this way, they can benefit from the profit-sharing structure of the cooperative without triggering securities regulations. They can take a more active role in the organization that develops and operates the project.

Clean Energy

Community solar provides a pathway to access clean energy for households unable to install their rooftop system due to financial barriers or roof constraints like tree blockage, homeowners association rules, or lack of suitable roof space. These community solar projects can be located on public buildings, private land, apartment buildings and commercial properties on rooftops. These projects are a powerful way for community members to reduce pollution and help the climate by replacing fossil fuels with renewable electricity.

To participate in a community solar project, community members must pay the provider a subscription fee, which is then credited to their electric utility bill as a credit each month for the kilowatt-hours produced by their portion of the solar array. These credits can be applied to their residential, small business, or nonprofit electricity bills to lower energy costs.

Successful and equitable community solar programs prioritize the interests of their subscribers through inclusive, representative engagement in the design process. This enables communities to shape the projects’ design and objectives based on their specific needs, ensuring that community benefits are realized for all community members. For example, community solar programs serving low-income households often offer a hotline for subscribers to get real-time customer support and provide tools and resources to support them in keeping their payments up-to-date.

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Community Health

Community Solar Projects are not only combating climate change and boosting local economies, but they are also helping communities take control of their energy decisions and creating new opportunities to address the needs of their residents. However, ensuring these benefits reach low- and moderate-income households requires a thoughtful design, funding, and marketing approach.

For example, community solar often takes the form of a subscription, which customers voluntarily sign up for through a provider that builds and manages a community-centric solar farm in their region. These farms are designed to provide electricity bill credits based on annual solar production. The provider then distributes the credits to its subscribers, who see them reflected on their monthly utility bills.

This is a great opportunity to help households save money. Still, it can be difficult for LMI households to access these benefits because they may need more disposable income or credit to invest in the upfront financial investment required by these contracts. In addition, these families are less likely to speak English as their primary language, making it harder to navigate complex community solar marketing materials that could contain confusing or misleading information.

To overcome these barriers, developers can build partnerships with local community organizations to support education and outreach around community solar. These partners can include nonprofits, houses of worship or faith-based organizations, educational institutions, and social service providers. 

FAQs

What is a community solar project?

A community solar project is a solar energy installation that is shared by multiple community members, allowing them to benefit from clean energy without installing solar panels on their own properties.

How do community solar projects work?

Community solar projects work by pooling resources and sharing the electricity generated by a solar array among participating community members. They receive credits on their utility bills for the energy generated.

How do community solar projects empower local communities?

Community solar projects empower local communities by giving them control over their energy choices, creating jobs, and fostering a sense of ownership and sustainability.

Who can participate in community solar projects?

Typically, anyone who pays an electricity bill and lives in the service area of a community solar project can participate, including homeowners, renters, and businesses.

Are there income requirements for participating in community solar projects?

The eligibility criteria can vary depending on the specific project, but many community solar initiatives aim to make clean energy accessible to a wide range of income levels.

What are the environmental benefits of community solar projects?

Community solar projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energy production, and contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly community.

How can I find a community solar project in my area?

You can typically find local community solar projects through online databases, by contacting local utilities, or by reaching out to solar developers and organizations that specialize in community solar.

What role do local governments play in community solar projects?

Local governments can support community solar initiatives by offering incentives, streamlining permitting processes, and creating policies that encourage renewable energy adoption.

What challenges do community solar projects face, and how can they be addressed?

Community solar projects may encounter obstacles such as financing, regulatory hurdles, and community engagement. These challenges can often be addressed through partnerships, education, and policy advocacy.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, community solar projects have emerged as a transformative force, empowering local communities in multiple ways. These initiatives not only promote sustainable energy generation but also foster economic development, enhance energy access, and strengthen community bonds. By making solar energy accessible to a broader range of residents and organizations, these projects represent a promising path toward a more sustainable, equitable, and interconnected future. As more communities embrace the benefits of community solar, the positive impacts on the environment and society are likely to continue growing, inspiring a brighter and more inclusive energy landscape for all.