But there's a problem with this arrangement, too. These customers don't have any control of, or personal connection to, their solar use. They likely don't even know that any of their power is coming from solar, so they have no sense of pride around it – a major selling point for other solar participants, such as owners of rooftop panels.
Community solar offers energy providers a solution that brings solar to lots of people at once while individualizing their ownership stake in the solar market. The key problems with community solar are in its marketing – not enough consumers know about its benefits, and it doesn't feel any different than the commodity energy that they get.
Energy providers can drive interest in community solar participation by communicating proactively with consumers about all they stand to gain, including the following:
Accessibility. Community solar opens doors to the renewables market for consumers who have wanted to join but have, so far, been limited. Renters, people living in multifamily dwellings, those with rooftops not suited for their own solar panels, customers with financial constraints – they can all share in community solar. Utilities that provide community solar options can deliver the power from solar gardens, and through some utility programs, consumers can allocate how much of their power they want to come from solar. Renewable solar power becomes available to anyone who's interested withÂ no more barriers to participation.
Efficiency. The key to producing optimal amounts of solar power is angling the panels to capture maximum sunlight. Solar gardens used for community solar can always angle their panels for the best possible production whereas residential rooftop panels are at the mercy of their exposed roof facings. Likewise, community solar often comes from local solar sources. Because energy does not have to travel far to the homes it powers, utilities and consumers deal with fewer line losses and outages.
Simplicity. With community solar, consumers simply sign up. They can monitor their usage and costs through utility Web portals or home energy reports, but otherwise, they don't need to do anything to join the solar market: no permits needed, no leases to sign, no loans to take out to purchase panels and no financial burdens following consumers if they choose to change homes.
Pride. Rooftop solar owners can show off easily – one look at their home and neighbors know they've joined the solar market, which reveals a certain cache along with environmental consciousness. Likewise, customers of community solar programs can have bragging rights, too. Through their solar providers, they should have access to personalized Web portals that show, in real time, how much of their energy is coming from their elected investment in solar. They can see how much of their own consumption is covered by solar, as well as how much energy the panels they're using are generating and selling back to the grid. The portal can illustrate in detail the environmental impact these community solar customers are having.
Energy providers looking to help consumers adopt solar should, of course, engage consumers in a thorough review of all of their options. They can guide consumers to compare buying rooftop panels – if feasible for their homes – with leasing them or joining a community solar program. The comparison should be as easy and personalized as possible, and in the near future, energy providers may be able to use technology to quickly consider customers' financial realities, home data, regional weather and other influential criteria in making a decision.
But even in the meantime, community solar stands out as a way for energy providers to help their customers have the immediate environmental impacts many of them desire. It is a means of creating jobs in communities as the demand for more solar gardens climbs, and, most importantly, it's a pathway to entry in the renewables market for consumers who have long been eager to take part.
Chris Black is chief operating officer and chief technology officer of Tendril Inc., an energy service management firm based in Boulder, Colo.