By Rolf Priesnitz
If you can't afford to go solar yourself,
or don't have the appropriate property, working cooperatively with others in
your community can be an alternative.
everyone can easily benefit from solar. You might rent a house where the
landlord won’t let you put solar panels on the roof, or an apartment where
that’s also impossible. You might be a homeowner with a roof that faces the
wrong direction, is shaded by trees or other buildings, or is structurally
unsuitable for mounting solar panels. Or you might own a small business that
leases its space. Your location could also be affected by restrictive zoning
bylaws or other local rules. Or you just might find the cost prohibitive.
could buy green energy from one of the growing number of third party
providers. But you might also be able to own some solar panels by working
cooperatively with others.
cooperatives pool the purchasing power of a group of homeowners or farmers,
allowing them to install PV systems on their roofs or in a field more
economically, while also tapping into legal, siting, installation, and
operational expertise they wouldn’t otherwise have readily available.
Others, called solar farms or gardens, are a larger-scale, centralized
collection of solar arrays organized by a third-party that sells shares to
Either way, there are benefits to the local economies, as well as to
individuals. These include boosting the local economy by making sure the
profits stay in the area, and, for the larger scale projects, encouraging
visitors and raising the local area’s profile. And although rooftop solar is
preferable from an environmental perspective, for those who can’t utilize
it, these larger localized solar power stations reduce the need for
additional transmission infrastructure by providing the energy close to the
point of use.
Starting A Community Solar Project
Organizing a community solar project is part community organizing,
part project development and marketing, and part politics. Here are
some suggestions, partly based on the experiences of Colorado’s
Solar Gardens Institute, and the founders of Ontario’s WISE and
DWSEP community solar power buying groups.
Hold/attend community meetings, recruit early adopters. Partner with
a local non-profit that already has people working together, as well
as infrastructure. These might be residents’ associations, church
groups, or schools/parent-teacher organizations.
Identify grants and get to know vendors for the project:
Ones sympathetic to the concept of community power will be easier to
work with as the project develops. Identify applicable grants,
feed-in-tariff programs, etc., as well as the appropriate scale and
best legal arrangement for your particular project. Consider working
with your local utility to develop a solar garden/farm program.
Scout for host sites: Properties of one to twenty
acres near substations or utility distribution lines and large roofs
can serve as host sites for a solar farm.
Use the local media and other community forums, as well as email
lists and group newsletters to recruit subscribers; create a
website. Consider recruiting businesses, non-profits, city
governments, and other large power users to “anchor” a solar farm
project. Find or educate elected representatives who will champion
community solar and help develop friendly zoning rules.
Community energy schemes have been around for a long time in Europe. In
Germany, twenty-five percent of all renewable energy is owned by community
projects. A similar proportion is community-owned in Denmark, and both
countries have a large share of renewable energy generation. For example, in
Denmark almost each town or village has its own community-owned renewable
energy project, including an 82 MW offshore wind farm that is cooperatively
North America, the residents of two Toronto, Ontario neighborhoods helped
pioneer the homeowner solar cooperative concept in 2007 and 2008. Community
solar buying groups called the West Toronto Initiative for Solar Energy
(WISE) and the Downtown West Solar Energy Project (DWSEP) formed and
attracted a great deal of media interest. Between the two projects, a few
hundred people requested an evaluation of their homes to determine their
suitability for solar power, and dozens of homes eventually sported solar PV
systems or solar hot water systems, all purchased and installed at less than
it would have cost if they'd gone it alone (and most wouldn't have even
San Rafael, California, Cooperative Community Energy (CCEnergy) is a
registered buyers’ co-op in which customers automatically become members.
Co-op members are part owners of the company, giving them voices and votes
in the direction and activities of this organization, not to mention the
ability to purchase solar PV systems and installation at a discounted rate.
Canada’s largest solar coop is SolarShare in Toronto. It has over five
hundred community members and is a project of Toronto Renewable Energy Coop,
founded in 1998 as a non-profit community power co-operative. (TREC
incubated and founded the WindShare Co-op and Ex-Place wind turbine, which
began generating green wind power in 2003.) Located in an industrial area,
SolarShare’s Goodmark project covers eighteen thousand square feet which
houses thirty commercial businesses including a bakery, cabinet maker, and
an importer of spices.
first cooperative community solar installation in the UK is the recently
launched Westmill Solar Park, located on the Oxfordshire/ Wiltshire border.
(See photo at the top of this article.) With over fifteen hundred members, it generates
enough power for fourteen hundred homes and claims to be the world’s largest
community-owned solar park.
Westmill is one of the growing breed of larger scale community solar farms
or “gardens.” These are large, grid-tied solar power installations that
accept capital from and provide output credit and tax benefits to individual
and other investors. They may be operated by companies, cooperatives,
governments, or non-profits. In some systems, you buy individual solar
panels, which are installed in the farm after your purchase. In others you
purchase kW capacity or kWh of production. The farm’s power output is
credited to subscribers/investors in proportion to their investment, with
adjustments to reflect ongoing changes in capacity, technology, costs, and
electricity rates. Depending on how the project is organized, you might be
sent an annual payment, or your regular power bill might be credited for
energy produced, receiving an equivalent amount of energy from the grid.
cooperative solutions are becoming big business with large solar
manufacturers getting involved. In December, solar panel manufacturer First
Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) announced it has partnered with the Colorado-based
Clean Energy Collective (CEC) to start offering solar solutions to consumers
who might live in places where rooftop space isn’t possible. In fact, First
Solar has purchased an equity stake in CEC, which currently has forty
community solar projects with eighteen partners and approximately 36 MW of
projects are run by local municipal utilities. Florida’s Orlando Utilities
Commission (OUC) has a community solar farm that began producing power in
October 2013. The municipal utility, which has over half of its customers
living in multi-family housing, wanted a unique solution for those wanting
to use solar power, but are unable to modify the homes they rent or lease.
Thirteen hundred solar panels are generating up to four hundred kW of
electricity. The panels are mounted on three canopies, which have created a side benefit of one
hundred and fifty covered LED-lit parking spaces over about two-and-a-half
In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District runs a
program called Solar Shares, which serves approximately onr thousand
customers. Other utilities across the U.S. – from Arizona to Utah to
Massachusetts – are building community solar arrays. It is important to note
that this type of solar usage doesn’t necessarily reduce one’s utility
costs. In fact, the Sacramento program adds about nine percent on average to
Assistance is Available
If you want to organize
your own neighborhood or community project, there is advice available from
those who have gone before. And some projects are supported by various sorts
of tax credits and net metering programs.
The Solar Gardens Institute in
Colorado, a state which is said to lead the U.S. in community-owned solar
capacity, organizes communities to go solar by pooling their resources. They
encourage libraries and schools, churches and synagogues, businesses, and
citizens to host distributed power plants, and offer workshops and
conferences on the topic. They also advocate for community-based distributed
energy at the federal, state, and local levels and maintain a national
directory of community solar projects and organizations.
So even if you
can’t have a solar installation on your own roof, you can still be part of
the solar revolution via the fast growing phenomenon of community solar.
Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance,
and Launch Local Energy Projects by Greg Pahl (Chelsea Green Publishing,
Guide to Community Solar: Utility, Private, and Non-profit Project
Development by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (US Department of
Rolf Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's founding publisher and has
worked for many years in the fields of construction and education.