Would You Pay for Solar on Someone Else's Land? Community Solar Gardens on the Rise

solar gardens photo

Image credit: CleanPath Ventures

With even mainstream home builders offering solar options, and some tantalizing hints that solar could be as cheap as coal by 2015, interest in solar for homeowners looks set to rise in coming years. But what about renters, or those who live in the woods? Now there's also an increasing interest in "solar gardens" that allow energy users to invest in solar on someone else's property and still reap the economic rewards. In fact, this may even make sense for folks who could put solar on their own roof if they wanted to.Matthew reported early last year on a Colorado bill to legalize community solar gardens. At the time, the bill was seen largely as a way for renters and condo-owners to get in on the solar game. The bill became law, and Clean Energy Authority reported back in June on the opening of an 858-kilowatt community solar garden that opened at Garfield Community Airport in Colorado.

Now, according to GigaOm, interest in community solar gardens is spreading beyond Colorado, with California looking very seriously at creating a similar bill:

Cheney used his talk at Intersolar to tout the California Senate bill, SB 843, that would make community solar gardens possible. The bill has made its way to the state Assembly and is waiting for its first hearing. One of the discussions about the bill deals with how much community solar development owners or subscribers would get from selling electricity to their utilities, said Peter Olmsted, a policy advocate for Vote Solar, an advocacy group in San Francisco. Currently, the bill wouldn't provide retail rates for the electricity sale, Olmsted said. The idea is that if you aren't paying for the full distribution cost of bringing electricity to your home, then you aren't entitled to get paid to offset that cost.

Still, much of the focus seems to be on benefits for renters, or those who can't install solar on their own roofs. But I'm wondering if there would also be benefits for those who could. For example, it's fairly common sense to assume that economies of scale mean the installation of an 800kw array is going to cost less per panel to install than a smaller, residential array. But there are other advantages too. Community solar gardens can be set up for a lower cost of entry than a full installation, allowing folks to buy just a few panels and even to consider them as gifts—as Matt Cheney of CleanPath Ventures explained to GigaOm:

"You can sell that on Craigslist," Cheney said. "You can give your friends a wedding gift of 250-kilowatt of solar capacity."

And then there are the well-known benefits of community-owned renewables in creating a collective identity around clean energy, and overcoming NIMBY concerns too.

There are, of course, disadvantages too compared to a traditional rooftop installation. As I argued in my post on 5 reasons why going solar is about more than just money, rooftop solar also gives you a sense of ownership in the power you produce, it can increase your personal household resilience (especially with battery back up), and even encourage conservation as you become more aware of what you generate and what you use.

As community solar gardens develop, it would be interesting to explore ways that these advantages can be carried over to these installations too—what if investers in solar gardens were also issued with smart energy meters? What if those meters were hooked up remotely to the solar garden too—allowing a real-time comparison between your panels' production and your household's consumption. That's where the concept of remote installations of solar starts to become really interesting.

More on Community Solar and Renewables
Residents Plan Community Solar Farm on Brewery Roof (Video)
Community Solar Gardens Offer Condo-Owners and Renters the Chance to Go Solar
5 Reasons Why Going Solar is About More Than Just Money

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