For many years, the best way for people to take advantage of the benefits of solar power was to purchase a system for their home and connect it to the grid, but that meant you had to own a home with an unshaded roof and be ready to spend many thousands of dollars.
More recently, with state and federal policies that specifically encourage solar development and big reductions to the installed costs of solar, other forms of solar ownership have arisen as possible ways for consumers to take advantage of solar power. One consequence of those favorable policies and cost reductions has been the rise of community solar installations, sometimes called “solar gardens.”
A solar garden is a solar installation that allows people to purchase portions (often called subscriptions) of the generated electricity to offset their electric bill. The main advantage of shared solar generation is that it opens the possibility of solar for people who can’t get traditional solar installations—either because they live in a house without an ideal roof, or because they rent, or otherwise.
Shared solar installations are usually much larger than a home solar panel system but not as large as a utility-scale solar farm, although it isn’t unusual for a utility company to own a solar garden. In fact, the most common types of community installations are either owned by a utility company or owned by a third-party with a power-purchase agreement (PPA) signed by a utility on behalf of its ratepayers.
The basic way community solar installations work is by selling “shares” as small as a fraction of a panel’s worth of electricity, up to several panels’ worth. The people who buy the shares pay either a one-time fee or a monthly fee, then get a monthly reduction in their electric bills equal to the amount of electricity produced by their share. The cost of a share varies widely depending on the individual circumstances of the installations, but it is not nearly as financially advantageous as purchasing a home solar system.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether community solar is available in your area, but there are a few places to begin. The website SharedRenewables.org maintains a database of state-level policies that encourage community solar projects. It’s a database of state policy and community solar installations all over the country. A couple other resources are Clean Energy Collective and SunShare, which actually partner with utilities in some states to build and manage community solar installations.
Two states have passed laws that specifically make “solar gardens” available to citizens: Minnesota and Colorado. The Minnesota solar gardens law, passed in 2013, specificaly names the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, as being responsible for the establishment of the solar gardens. The Colorado bill makes no such requirement, instead laying out rules for how electric utilities will purchase the generation from the solar gardens, among other things.
If you’re a renter or homeowner without adequate unshaded roof space, look for community solar in your area, but be aware that you’ll most likely be financially better off by investing in the stock market. If you’re interested for solar for moral reasons, however, you may find that a solar garden is the perfect way to green up your energy supply.