Meet the Sunshine State’s New Clean Energy Darling—Community Solar

As part of the American Cities Climate Challenge, Orlando, Florida’s solar strategies are helping make the clean energy revolution more accessible for all.
The Harmony solar farm in St. Cloud, Florida

Orlando Utilities Commission

So you want to power your home with solar energy, but your plan runs into a snag. Perhaps your rooftop is too shady, or the costs for installing solar panels—which average in the tens of thousands of dollars—are too steep for your budget. Or, maybe, like more than a third of U.S. households, you’re a renter or you live in a multi-unit building.

According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nearly half of all U.S. businesses and households can’t install solar panels due to a lack of suitable roof space. So what’s a climate-conscious electricity consumer to do?

Enter community solar.

Rather than relying on your own roof and set of photovoltaic panels, a member of a community solar program can share the cost of an off-site solar farm that feeds electricity into the main grid. Customers pay for their solar subscription as a portion of their regular utility bill and, sometimes, they can receive credits back if their solar panels generate more electricity than their household consumed in a set period.

While the specifics of shared solar programs vary by region and utility, they all help make clean energy more accessible to a wider range of people. Already, 40 states have at least one community solar program up and running, but the model is now picking up steam in the Sunshine State, where cities like Orlando, Florida, are expanding community solar as part of the American Cities Climate Challengea partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and several other organizations to reduce emissions in the building, energy, and transportation sectors.

“Community solar is a major player. We see this as an opportunity for our residents to procure green power and to be able to do so without any up-front expenses,” says Chris Castro, the director of sustainability and resilience for the city of Orlando. Castro has helped lead Orlando’s Climate Challenge projects, which also include installing more solar panels on roofs, electrifying city buses, and making buildings more energy efficient.

University of Central Florida students who helped design a camera system to monitor skies for cloud cover

Orlando Utilities Commission

Operated by the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC), the city’s first 400-kilowatt community solar farm went up in 2013 and was met with high demand. “It was really the first of its kind in the state of Florida—and for a good part of the country,” says Tim Trudell, a spokesperson for the OUC. “It’s based on a solar carport array, and it was wildly successful. We were well subscribed—oversubscribed, in fact—in a matter of a few days.”

Then, in 2017, the OUC expanded its community solar program with a 13-megawatt array built atop a repurposed coal ash landfill—which soon became fully subscribed as well. It’s easy to see why demand is so high.

For most households, but particularly those in lower income brackets, solar has remained off-limits. The financial burden—what with inspections, installation, and maintenance—often requires credit-score checks, decades-long contracts, and a substantial initial investment. It’s no wonder that households earning less than $40,000 each year (about 40 percent of U.S. households) make up less than 5 percent of solar installations. Meanwhile, low-income neighborhoods often have more incentive to participate in the clean energy economy since they  bear more of the health burdens of the fossil fuel industry, whose polluting facilities are often sited in their communities.

If customers move, these solar programs also allow them to bring their subscription to their new address, as long as it’s within the utility’s service area. If leaving the area, they can transfer their subscription to another eligible customer, with no disruption in the clean energy provided by that share of the solar farm. With less of a financial and long-term commitment, more people may be willing to make the switch. And with more than half of Orlando’s population living as renters or in multifamily homes, the city is looking to scale up.

A floating solar array in a pond at the Orlando Utilities Commission facility

Orlando Utilities Commission

As part of the Climate Challenge, Orlando is adding 107 megawatts of community solar capacity later this summer, and another 147 megawatts within the next two years.

The city is also expanding its own community-solar subscription for the buildings it owns. Right now, Orlando subscribes to 5.2 megawatts—enough capacity to offset city hall, all 17 of its fire stations, and the police headquarters. But beginning in October, the city plans to add 20 megawatts of capacity to its subscription, enough to offset all of its community and senior centers, as well as the massive Amway Center and the Camping World Stadium.

“Moving forward, those venues—all the sports games played, the soccer games, the NBA games—will be powered by renewables, which we’re really excited about,” says Castro.

Orlando’s shared solar customers currently pay a premium to support community solar—4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour of solar energy compared to 3.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by fossil fuels. As the city continues to grow its solar programs, the subscription costs will drop, beginning as soon as September, and the city expects the cost to be on par with fossil fuels by around 2023.

Until then, the city not only plans to offer reduced rates for a certain number of low-income residents, but to explore innovative financing options—such as a partnership with the Solar and Energy Loan Fund. SELF, a current partner of the ACCC, provides low-interest loans for renewables and other home improvements, opening the door to solar for more customers.

Orlando’s community solar boom is just one player in its multifaceted approach to hitting its goal of running on 100 percent renewable energy by mid-century. “Community solar will play a substantial role in the future,” says Castro. “But the idea is that over time, while this notion of community solar will still be there, we’ll have fully greened the grid.”

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