Installing solar panels on your roof is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. The average American household uses around 11,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity every year and switching those kilowatt-hours to a renewable source can keep around 10,000 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere per household; the carbon equivalent of taking two cars off of the road per year. Rooftop solar has also become easier and cheaper to install and there are many local and federal financial incentives for installing solar panels including tax credits and subsidized financing options.

But not everyone has access to rooftop solar. Many Massachusetts residents rent, and many homeowners struggle with the high up-front costs, long term return on investment, old roofs, shady trees, and concerns about maintenance and aesthetics. In fact, up to 80% of US residents can’t get rooftop solar mostly due to these concerns.

Meanwhile, more and more Americans are interested in renewable energy and installed solar capacity has risen by 20% in the past year and from 1,000 megawatts to almost 100,000 in the past decade. How to bridge this gap between demand and access? The answer for many is community solar.

What is Community Solar?

The community solar model is built around community solar “gardens” and the concept is similar to that of a CSA. If enough interest is generated, or if a good site is found, a developer will build a solar garden in the local community. The garden will generate solar energy and developers will give local businesses and residents the option to sign up and receive a share of the energy generated by the garden.

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Small-scale communi9ty solar gardens like this one allow more people to access solar energy

The garden will feed that energy into the local grid thereby generating solar credits for the community solar subscribers. These credits will allow subscribers to pay the community solar company for their share of the electricity that the garden generates. Customers may still have to purchase additional power if their energy use surpasses their share generated by the solar garden, but subscribers’ electricity bills often drop regardless (sometimes up to 10%).

The Advantages of Small Scale

Community solar programs also provide solutions to some of the biggest problems faced by large-scale solar farms.

One of the biggest solutions they offer communities is access and choice. Due to their size, large-scale solar farms require a lot of planning by big companies and often government organizations leaving little to no room for local community members to join the discussion. Community solar differs by allowing communities to band together and get access to clean energy if they so choose. It also gives individuals more agency in their energy decisions by giving more people the option to switch from the anonymous and often fossil fuel heavy grid.

Another problem with large-scale solar farms is land use. Solar farms require vast amounts of land to generate electricity which sometimes requires the clearing of forests or other wild habitats. In stark contrast to this model, many community solar companies build their gardens on land that isn’t suitable for other types of development or conservation—like brownfields, capped landfills, and the roofs of large buildings like schools, hospitals, and large retail centers. Many community solar gardens have also been built on local farms as they provide shade for livestock and generate extra revenue for small farmers.

How to Sign Up

Community solar is still an emerging industry, but there are many companies popping up all over Massachusetts and the U.S. that make signing up fairly easy. A great place to start is the Energy Sage community solar marketplace. Energy Sage compares different prices and developers and provides customers with a list of their best community solar options. Nexamp, Ampion, Solstice, and Blue Wave also offer community solar options in Massachusetts.