What Is Community Solar? [Everything You Need to Know in 2022]

What Is Community Solar? [Everything You Need to Know in 2022]

In this EcoWatch guide on community solar, you’ll learn:

  • What the difference between on-site vs off-site community solar is
  • Whether ownership models are better than subscription models
  • What types of residents can benefit the most from community solar
  • How to find out if community solar is available near you

This EcoWatch guide has helped thousands of indecisive homeowners determine whether community solar can better suit their needs compared to installing rooftop solar. Let’s get started!

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What is Community Solar?

Community solar is a term used to describe photovoltaic and renewable energy systems that are shared by many electric customers, including homeowners, renters, businesses, nonprofit organizations and more. Electricity savings and other benefits from the solar project are split among its shareholders and solar subscribers at a rate based on the level of investment.

When starting a community solar project, solar developers will establish the geographic area and service territory from which consumers are eligible to join. Some programs have installed multiple solar power systems in the same area, allowing a larger number of shareholders and stakeholders.

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SunPower

Best National Provider

Nationwide Service

EcoWatch rating

Average cost

Pros

  • Most efficient panels on the market
  • National coverage
  • Cradle to Cradle sustainability certification
  • Great warranty coverage

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Customer service varies by local dealer
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Blue Raven Solar

Best Solar Financing

Regional Service

EcoWatch rating

Average cost

Pros

  • Industry-leading in-house financing
  • Competitive pricing
  • Excellent reputation

Cons

  • Doesn't offer solar batteries (coming 2022)
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ADT Solar

Best Warranty Coverage

Regional Service

EcoWatch rating

Average cost

Pros

  • Industry-leading warranty coverage
  • Expansive service area

Cons

  • Some reported communication issues
  • No leases or PPAs

Community solar power is possible thanks to virtual net metering. Through this process, a percentage of the electricity produced from energy generation by the community solar panels is subtracted from the total amount of power you use in your home even though the panels aren’t located on your property. Here are a few key things to note:

  • The kilowatt-hours produced by a community solar project are measured for each billing period and are divided based on ownership shares.
  • If a community solar array produces 10,000 kWh of electricity and you own 5% of the project, you get 500 kWh for that billing period in the form of bill credits
  • The value of those 500 kWh will be subtracted from your electric utility bill, so if you use, for example, 750 kWh of electricity in your home, you’d only pay your utility company for 250 kWh.

Check out this webinar to get an overview of community solar and how you can benefit from it:

Benefits of Community Solar

The main benefit of community solar is saving on monthly bills, especially in places with high electricity costs and abundant sunshine. However, the concept of sharing a solar array brings many other benefits, both technical and economic. These include:

  • Community solar can be used by homeowners or renters who can’t install rooftop or ground-mounted solar panels. Some roof structures are not suitable for solar panels, and others are too shaded from surrounding buildings or objects to be effective. Community solar may also be an option if you live in an apartment without its own roof or if you simply don’t like the appearance of rooftop solar panels.
  • You can easily take your solar savings to another home or apartment. If you install solar panels and decide to move in a few years, you must either sell them or take them with you. On the other hand, when joining a community solar project, you can simply assign the savings to your new address.
  • You can sometimes sell or donate your community solar share (depending on program conditions). This is useful if you move to a location that is not covered by the community solar program or if you decide to install your own solar panels in the future.
  • Community solar supports and provides solar access to a more diverse customer base, allowing low-income and moderate-income households to go solar. To install your own solar panels, you must have the cash for an upfront payment or qualify for a loan. This financial barrier is eliminated with community solar — consumers can pay a monthly subscription or can purchase a small share according to their budget.
  • With community solar, you can forget about maintenance and part replacements. Solar panels need regular cleaning to stay productive, and components like inverters and solar batteries must usually be replaced after about 10 years. However, you don’t have to worry about maintenance with community solar, as there is a project developer in charge.
  • Community solar shareholders gain eligibility for the federal solar tax credit. When purchasing a share of a community solar project, you can deduct 30% of your investment on your next tax declaration. Just keep in mind that this benefit is not available when joining as a subscriber, since technically you don’t own a part of the community solar farm.

Community solar provides an easier alternative to installing your own solar power system. The project developer is responsible for financing, installation, operation and maintenance, and you can reduce your electricity bills by simply buying a share of the project or subscribing.

However, installing your own solar power system also brings many benefits. You save the full economic value of the electricity generated, for example. Onsite solar power also increases the value of homes and commercial buildings, and many incentive programs are only available when you buy solar panels directly.

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How Does Community Solar Work?

In a few words, community solar lets you save on power bills with a shared photovoltaic array, instead of having your own system. However, not all community solar projects are alike, and they can be classified into several types:

  • On-site vs. off-site
  • Ownership vs. subscription

Community solar should not be confused with group purchasing, which happens when many homeowners or businesses purchase individual solar systems at bulk prices. This does not count as community solar, since the project is split into many private installations.

On-Site vs Off-Site Community Solar

Many real estate developers use on-site community solar projects in their residential, commercial or mixed-use projects. The electricity generated by solar panels reaches consumers through a private power system, without depending on the local electric grid. On the other hand, off-site community solar is supplied via the grid. Here are the main benefits and drawbacks of each type of community solar project:

On-Site Community Solar Off-Site Community Solar
Pros On-site community solar systems often achieve higher savings — because they don’t use the local electric grid, they don’t pay transmission and distribution fees to a utility company. Off-site community solar projects can serve a larger number of residential customers. You can also keep your ownership share or subscription when moving to another address, as long as you stay within the project’s service area.
Cons On-site community solar is only available for local property owners and tenants of communities that have installed these energy projects. Depending on limitations with your local power grid, you may not yield as high of savings with off-site community solar.

Ownership vs Subscription Model

Community solar projects offer ownership shares and subscriptions. Some projects only have one option available, while others let you choose enrollment type. You can save on power bills with both options, but understanding the differences between them is important:

  • When you purchase an ownership share in a community solar project, the corresponding percentage of power generation is yours for the entire service life of the project. Also, since you’re a partial owner of the system, you can claim 30% of your investment as a federal tax deduction. However, owning part of a community solar project means you must have the capital to pay upfront.
  • When you subscribe to a community solar project, there is no upfront investment. Instead, community solar subscribers pay a monthly fee. This means there is an ongoing cost, but the corresponding power bill savings are higher than the subscription fee. Keep in mind that subscription costs may increase over time, while an ownership share represents a single upfront payment.

Each option has pros and cons — you will generally save more when you become a shareholder in a community solar project, but a subscription comes with zero upfront cost. Also, consider that you must sell your share if you move to a location not covered by a community solar project, while a subscription can be easily canceled.

community solar farm

Is Community Solar Available Near You?

Community solar offers many benefits, but it is not available nationwide. To scale these types of projects, state governments must first enable this business model by law. Also, developers are more likely to invest in community solar projects if market conditions are favorable.

Generally, the best states for solar power are those with incentive programs, abundant sunshine and/or high electricity prices. There are currently 40 states with at least one local community solar project in operation, and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reported that 3.1 GW of community solar were online and operational by the end of Q1 2021.

There is an optimistic outlook for community solar, and the SEIA has forecast a growth of 4 GW over the next five years. Each gigawatt of solar power can cover the electricity needs of around 186,000 American homes.

If you’re interested in community solar power, you can check local government and utility websites — there could be several projects available near you.

Additional Solar Energy Resources:

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FAQs: Community Solar

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions we receive from readers who are interested in community solar.

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Leonardo David, Solar Expert
Article author
Leonardo David is an electromechanical engineer, MBA, energy consultant and technical writer. His energy-efficiency and solar consulting experience covers sectors including banking, textile manufacturing, plastics processing, pharmaceutics, education, food processing, fast food, real estate and retail. He has also been writing articles about energy and engineering topics since 2015.
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Melissa Smith, Energy Expert
Expert reviewer
Melissa is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainability studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit that’s featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.