Power in Numbers—Popular Community Movements Make Solar PV More Accessible

Throughout the United States, communities are finding innovative ways to deliver the benefits of solar to residents. Whether through bulk photovoltaic (PV) purchasing or sharing a community solar installation, communities are proving there’s power in numbers.

ARTICLE | Jul 9, 2012

Throughout the United States, communities are finding innovative ways to deliver the benefits of solar to residents. Whether through bulk photovoltaic (PV) purchasing or sharing a community solar installation, communities are proving there’s power in numbers.

Two of these methods take very different approaches to making solar PV more accessible. Community shared solar enables multiple individuals to reap the benefits of a single solar installation. Everyone can participate—even renters, condo owners, and homeowners with shading and other issues that prohibit individual PV installations. This is important, because a 2008 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that only between 22% and 27% of the residential rooftop area in the United States is suitable for hosting on-site systems.

The benefits of community shared solar include increasing energy independence, hedging against rising fuel costs, creating jobs, and cutting carbon emissions.

The second method, called Solarize, is when community members band together and seize volume discounts through collective solar purchasing. Solarize began as a grassroots movement in Portland, Oregon. Over the last three years, Solarize programs have helped the city add more than 1.7 MW of distributed PV and establish a strong, steady solar installation economy. The Portland model is so successful that communities in Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, California, and others have established their own programs to buy PV in bulk and share the savings among participants. Even multi-city campaigns have followed the Solarize model. Companies are also taking part in Solarize campaigns to provide employees group-purchasing discounts that make solar PV more affordable. To date, Solarize campaigns have resulted in 1,960 installations throughout the United States.

Two popular how-to guides, developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, have helped build this momentum. With newly released updates, A Guide to Community Shared Solar: Utility, Private, and Nonprofit Project Development and The Solarize Guidebook: A Community Guide to Collective Purchasing of Residential PV Systems feature updated case studies, step-by-step plans, statistics, community solar legislation, and more.

“These how-to manuals are valuable resources for anyone wanting to launch solar programs in their community,” said Jason Coughlin of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who managed the guide updates. “Folks often begin these programs and quickly realize how complicated navigating the process can be. These guides for pursuing community shared solar and Solarize projects help project organizers avoid mistakes and eliminate barriers to going solar.”

The guides focus on PV projects designed to increase access to solar energy and to reduce up-front costs. For example, A Guide to Community Shared Solar is organized around three sponsorship models: utility-sponsored projects, projects sponsored by special-purpose entities – businesses formed for the purpose of producing community solar power, – and nonprofit-sponsored projects. The guide discusses what each model has in common, and what is unique. It also explains typical processes, warns of pitfalls, and provides resource materials.

In a complementary way, The Solarize Guidebook is designed for “green” consumers, utilities, local governments, and community groups who want to overcome barriers to implementation and permanently transform the market for solar energy in their communities. Drawing on actual experiences, the guideboook provides a road map for project planners and solar advocates who want to create their own successful solar group-buy campaigns, overcome market barriers, and permanently transform the market for solar installations in their communities.

Whether through shared systems or shared purchasing, communities gain power in numbers when it comes to going solar. These guides show the way.

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