Community Solar–Simple or Not?

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Community solar is a simple concept. Instead of putting solar panels on your rooftop, you buy them as part of a big array in a field somewhere.

The electricity they produce then gets subtracted from what you use from the electric grid. Voila, community solar!

If only it were that simple. Community solar may or may not be right for you, but it’s probably because of where you live more than anything else. Top states include CA, CO, MN, MA.

Community solar rules vary significantly from state to state. Almost invariably your community solar panels have to be in the same state as your home. Often the two must be in the same part of the state, and frequently they have to be connected to the same utility. Sometimes they have to be within a certain number of miles… EnergySage is a good place to start your research–all based on where you live.

Involving the utility also adds complexity. It’s the electric utility that has to subtract the output of your solar panels from the electricity you consume at home. You’re also using their electric grid. You’ll pay something for both of those. And utility operating costs are trending upward; they’ve risen 75% in the last decade. You’ll always be subject to that risk.

Community solar also likely requires signing a lengthy contract that is hard to understand. The key term that you should carefully understand is the length of your commitment. The shorter it is, the better. But you may get different prices for different term lengths. In sum, while community solar vendors in general have a decent reputation, there can be lots of “gotchas.”

Simpler alternatives include carbon offsets from Arcadia Power or Carbon Fund. All of that said, community solar could be a good option for you if you don’t have a sunny roof, if you rent, or if you don’t like the way solar panels look. It’s just a good idea to understand the risks.