Community Solar (Who has it & Who doesn't?)

DC, Maryland, and Virginia are often lumped together as the “DMV.” However, Virginia is left in the dark, literally, in one important area: clean energy. Washington D.C., Maryland, and 15 other states have laws that make them energy deregulated, while Virginia remains regulated (however, the VA General Assembly can change this). In deregulated states, customers have the ability to select their electricity providers, so they can choose clean energy, while Virginians cannot.  

There are numerous clean energy companies that provide a diverse range of options. One of these options allows consumers to benefit from solar power without having to put panels on their own homes.

What is community solar? It is a clean energy subscription that allows customers to offset their monthly energy usage with locally produced solar power.

How does it work? Customers who subscribe to community solar purchase a percentage of the output of a local solar farm. This energy is then sent into the utility grid and helps offset their energy usage, reducing the utility’s reliance on dirty energy sources such as coal and oil.

Who can use it? Anyone - from renters to homeowners to municipalities - can benefit from solar power without having to own a prime piece of real estate or install and maintain costly solar panels. Eligible customers generally live in the county that the farm is located in (or in the adjacent county) and receive energy from the utility that the farm partners with. The farm location is chosen for its efficiency and customers need not worry about installation or maintenance. 

How would I enroll? Customers in deregulated states contact a community solar provider; in most cases, this can be done online. Once eligibility is determined, customers submit a past utility bill so that the provider can help them determine how much output to purchase. Once the details are ironed out, customers sign a contract. These subscriptions can last anywhere from one year to 25 years, depending on the company and farm. The longer term contracts help companies ensure a return on the upfront cost of building the farm, but those costs are not reflected in the customer’s rates. Also, there are often no-penalty cancellations for customers who give notice or move out of the utility’s grid. 

How does it compare on cost? Once customers subscribe to an active solar farm, they will receive two bills each month, one from their solar provider and one from their utility. The lower utility bill reflects the credits of the customer’s contribution of solar energy to the grid. Customers generally see savings of 5-10% on their utility bills. In the summer, the production of the solar farm is often greater than the customer’s monthly usage, so the bill credits roll over to future months when production may not be as great. This helps balance any production discrepancies resulting from the long summer and short winter days. 

What other benefits come from community solar? In addition to saving customers money and producing clean energy, many solar farms help native wildlife. Developers plant native plants and wildflowers to create critical habitat for increasingly threatened pollinator species. “Solar honey” has become a side industry for some solar farms. These pollinator-friendly gardens see decreased maintenance costs and increased efficiency due to the ecosystem services provided by the habitat. Farmers have also found that surrounding crop fields have increased yields, so it’s a win-win. Solar farms can also be built on brownfield and other undesirable sites, making use of seemingly worthless land and reducing habitat disruption from development. 

Community solar customers can also feel good that they are supporting the local community. These solar farms create new jobs in the local community and many set aside a portion of their production to be sold to low-to-moderate income customers at a reduced rate. The rent paid to landowners by community solar operators provides a secondary, steady source of income for farmers and other people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Some farmers even rent out sheep to the farms to provide “maintenance” of the plants around the panels, a further economic opportunity created by the farms.  Overall, switching to community solar is a great way to start helping the environment, and community.

How do we get it in Virginia? Those of us who live in Virginia should be able to choose to do this and we need the Virginia General Assembly to pass legislation to deregulate to give consumers this option. This is where your voice really matters; write, call, and petition your representatives to deregulate Virginia’s energy industry and when it comes time to vote on November 5th, make sure to elect candidates who support clean energy initiatives. 

Author Grace Breitenbeck is a William & Mary Public Policy student and native of Alexandria, Virginia.