Pacific Sun Technologies
Community solar is an excellent way to create energy equity–if it’s done right
BY EILLIE ANZILOTTI
When you think of home solar power, you probably imagine a house with solar panels on its roof. But many people aren’t able to access that kind of solar power: maybe they don’t control their roofs, maybe it’s too shady for panels to be effective. Community solar is a solution to this problem: it allows a group of people to subscribe to a larger solar array installed by a provider on a piece of land or property. Every subscriber receives the benefits of solar–namely, a lower energy bill–without the hassle of having to manage the system themselves.
Community solar has grown in popularity in the past several years, nearly quadrupling in capacity since 2016 and generating enough electricity to power around 266,000 households. But despite the feel-good sense around community solar–who doesn’t like the idea of groups of people uniting to collectively support clean energy?–that rhetoric, and the growth its brought about, has largely failed to reach the group that most stands to benefit from solar: low-income communities.
The majority of U.S. community solar projects do not include low-income subscribers, according to a Smart Electric Power Alliance report from 2018. At the same time, low-income households often pay the greatest share of their income, around 10%, toward their energy bills, because their homes often haven’t been upgraded to maximize energy efficiency.
Groundswell, a solar nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. and operating in five other states including Illinois and Maryland, wants to broaden community solar’s reach across the economic spectrum. “Community solar is an opportunity for us to share and do a lot more with solar as it relates to economic development and opportunity,” says CEO Michelle Moore, who served as the federal chief sustainability officer under the Obama administration.
The main issue with low-income access to community solar is how it’s traditionally financed and structured. Community solar developers often treat a subscription like an investment: they ask potential subscribers for credit scores and lock them into long-term contracts. This poses a problem for low-income people, who often lack credit or have low scores. And for renters, being locked into a multiyear contract isn’t usually a smart decision.
“But in fact, community solar projects operate more like a tiny utility,” Moore says. “If a utility were building a new power plant, they would never ask for credit scores or a 10-year contract. You just have to make sure you’re utilizing 100% of the electricity that’s generated.”
Groundswell takes that approach. The nonprofit sources funding from government grants and foundations, like Citi Foundation, and sets up churches and faith-based organizations as the hosts of community solar projects. It’s Groundswell’s responsibility, Moore says, to keep every project fully subscribed, “so the funding providers are looking to us, instead of at the credit score of the people subscribing,” she says. Through Groundswell’s model, which they call Share Power, market-rate customers subscribe to a community solar project for around the same cost that they would pay their conventional utility.
Normally, community solar affords subscribers a discount on their energy bills, but Groundswell’s model is different: it asks market-rate subscribers to forego the discount to collectively support low-income subscribers to be able to access the energy free of charge. For every three to five market-rate households who subscribe, one low-income household will be able to join. “We’ve had good acceptance of that model,” Moore says, because ultimately, the cost is the same to market-rate subscribers, but they get the benefit of supporting both clean energy and economic equity. Groundswell has also created a dashboard that will allow market-rate subscribers to track the impact of their purchases.