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Community Solar: Get Solar Power for Your Home Without Rooftop Panels

Not enough space or money for rooftop solar panels? Community solar has you covered.

Two people walk by a large solar array in front of an orange apartment building
Community solar opens access to solar power to people who can't put solar panels on their roofs, for one reason or another.
Billy Hustace/Getty Images

In 2021, over half a million residential solar projects were installed in the United States, the most ever. In 2022, the Inflation  Reduction Act locked in an increased tax credit for solar projects (and incentives for other energy efficiency projects). Industry groups project 13% of American houses would have solar panels by 2030.

Even with additional incentives, there are plenty of reasons you might not be able to go solar now or at all. You might not be able to afford it, even with the long term savings. You might rent your home or not have a suitable roof or space for ground-mounted solar panels. If you can't swing purchasing solar panels, you still might be able to purchase solar power through an arrangement called community solar.

If you live in a state that allows access to community solar, you can subscribe to solar power generated by solar panels located somewhere besides your property. In states with competitive marketplaces, community solar providers can offer simple subscriptions that save you money on electricity almost immediately.

What is community solar?

Community solar is a fast-growing solar option for when traditional solar doesn't work. Rather than using electricity from solar panels located on or around the home, community solar subscribers get power from larger arrays of solar panels located (usually) nearby.

Community solar arrays are usually owned by non-profit organizations, some other third-party company or a utility. Subscribers sign up to pay for the electricity produced by a portion of that array, often at a discounted price.

Signing up for community solar will make your bill look different, depending on your utility and your community solar supplier. In some cases you'll receive two bills; in others, the electricity generated by your portion of the community solar array will be credited against your utility bill. It's also important to note that your savings (typically from 5% to 10% depending on your community solar plan and utility) are typically seen over the entire year. That's because your savings will vary throughout the year.

In most of the United States, utility companies operate as regulated monopolies. Unless otherwise mandated, they're the only ones allowed to generate and distribute electricity in a given area. For community solar to really save consumers money, the state legislature needs to allow third parties to construct and operate solar arrays.

There are 41 states with community solar installations as of December 2021, according to the National Laboratory for Renewable Energy. Only 22 states and Washington, D.C., have policies promoting community solar.

It's in these states, where competition drives down cost, that people save money by switching, said Jeff Cramer, CEO of Coalition for Community Solar Access, a national organization advocating for greater access to community solar. 

"[If] it's owned by a third party and it's created through a program that the state allows multiple parties to compete [...] those guarantee savings to customers because you have competition in the marketplace," Cramer said.

Not all programs with the label community solar return savings to subscribers. In states without legislation to open the playing field to third parties, utilities can offer community solar subscriptions, sometimes at a premium. In these cases, the pitch to subscribers centers on reducing one's personal carbon footprint or accelerating the transition to renewable energy by subsidizing new solar or wind farms.

Why community solar?

The most obvious and attractive benefit of community solar is savings on your electricity bill. Saving 10% of an electricity bill in the contiguous United States can be anywhere from $96.29 a year in Utah to $193.86 in Connecticut, according to the US Energy Information Administration's 2020 data. Adjusted down to 5%, Americans in the lower 48 will save from $48.14 to $96.93. 

Community solar opens these savings to people who aren't able to acquire rooftop solar: renters, low-income homeowners and people who live in shaded areas, to start. Connecting people with low incomes to community solar programs is one goal of a community solar subscription pilot program recently announced by the Biden-Harris administration. Some enabling legislation requires that a certain percentage of subscribers are low- or moderate-income.

Community solar arrays can be built on a larger scale (which is typically cheaper) in places better suited to solar production. Instead of placing panels on roofs oriented in less-than-ideal directions, or cutting down trees to eliminate shade, community solar arrays can be sited in ideal locations. That might mean more cheap, highly performing solar in a community than would otherwise be.

Because community solar isn't tied to a rooftop, if someone moves within a service area, they can take their service with them to a new address. Homeowners don't take rooftop solar panels with them (some research shows that it does boost a house's selling price).

Community solar can benefit the grid and utilities as well. Placing solar farms on the grid where there are few other power sources can help stabilize the grid. Solar power can also help utilities meet renewable power thresholds mandated by the state.

Community solar could also inspire some pride in local power generation, Cramer of the Coalition for Community Solar Access speculated.

Given the choice between 10% savings and 12% savings, someone might decide "I'm actually going to take the 10% one because I drive past that one every day on my way to work," Cramer said.

There are plenty of people who can't yet access cheaper community solar because they live in a state without enabling legislation. Still, community solar is expected to nearly double in the next five years, adding more than 4.3 gigawatts.