Coming to a County Near You: Community Solar Helps to Expand Access to Clean Energy Benefits

The Midwest is known for growing stuff, but we're seeing a whole new kind of garden crop up across the region. The Cook County Department of Environmental Control announced last week that they were the latest recipients of an award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for $1.2 million to examine and expand community solar in the area. Community solar, also called solar gardens or shared solar, is a solar-electric system in which multiple community members can join together and invest in a larger solar installation. One of 15 awards in the country, the Cook County project will be supported by groups that range from Elevate Energy to the county's Housing Authority to Chicago Public Schools to Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation.

Cook County's project goals:

The project aims to provide solar energy to at least 30,000 people in Cook County who would not otherwise be able to benefit from the clean energy technology, over the next eight years. The project will have three major phases. The first phase will look at the existing solar market and demand, as well as barriers to community solar development and potential ways to overcome those barriers, whether by policy or ownership structure. The next phase will establish several pilot projects to model community solar implementation. Finally, the project will share its lessons learned so that community solar can continue to grow in the region.

Why community solar is needed to expand access to solar:

Cook County's announcement is significant because it will broaden access to solar for those households that might be financially constrained or lack proper space for installation. For instance, a roof might be too shady, slant the wrong way, or be too steep or too flat. Renters cannot install solar on rooftops they do not own. And, though solar costs are dropping precipitously, solar systems still require an up-front investment that remains difficult or impossible for many households. Many of these households are also living in areas that would benefit the most from cleaner air and ownership over generation. For these reasons and more, at least three-quarters of residential customers in the United States cannot access rooftop solar.

Solar is cheaper than ever and with innovative program design, can reduce the energy burden of low-income households. Community solar pools the resources of multiple community members, allowing people to purchase as little or as much renewable energy as they can afford. Participants can either own portions of the installation or purchase portions of its output. Many community solar projects work on a subscription model, where an entity like a utility or a non-profit organization owns the installation and gives the customer credit on their bills in exchange for a fixed monthly rate. This means that a much broader swath of people can have access to pollution-free power, save money on electric bills over time, and even benefit from good-paying jobs associated with the local work of installing and maintaining the systems.

Credit: DOE

Whole communities benefit, too, even if some individuals do not invest. The power grid as a whole benefits when solar is sited in crowded places like cities, where the electric grid is probably pretty crowded too, since local generation can ease some of the stress and strain on the grid. And, local solar reduces waste: bringing power in from distant conventional power plants requires transmission lines, which lose about six percent of the electricity generated. Not only do community solar gardens make renewable energy investments a possibility for lower-income households, but they also can be sited in repurposed toxic, abandoned, or unsightly spaces or on large, well-situated rooftops, which may aid in the rehabilitation of existing buildings.

Models for expansion

Similar programs launched around the nation can provide additional evidence and models for how these gardens can and should work. Iowa's largest solar farm began operating in July and will provide power to Farmer's Electric Cooperative, just south of Iowa City; another one at Heartland Power in north-central Iowa is already in development. Xcel Energy started accepting applications for community solar in December - in just a week, they had received over 420 proposals for solar gardens in the state, which if built would have the combined output of a conventional power plant. NRDC is involved in an initiative in New York that is working to install solar on schools, and has worked to ease regulatory barriers to installing community solar gardens on suitable rooftops. The New York State Public Service Commission will allow community solar projects to begin in the state as early as this spring. Just today, my colleague in California wrote about a new program seeking to expand solar to those occupying low-income housing in California, which will allocate $54 million to the multifamily sector for a proposed 35 MW of installed solar on qualifying affordable multifamily properties. All of these projects and many, many more will teach us, ease us, and (pun intended) empower us, making solar more accessible for everyone.

Image credit: Ari Moore

Inforgraphic credit: DOE

About the Authors

Katharine McCormick

City Engagement Manager, City Energy Project, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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