Community solar expands access to clean energy, new study shows

Peer-reviewed research finds that community solar makes cheap renewable power available to more people, including those who live in rentals and multifamily buildings.
By Alison F. Takemura

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Rows of solar panels stand in grass at a community solar garden.
A community solar array harvests the sun at Jack’s Solar Garden in Longmont, Colorado. (Alison F. Takemura)

The sun showers us all with energy, but not everyone can put solar panels on their roofs to harness it for themselves. Enter community solar, an increasingly popular way to expand access to solar and help fix its equity issues. For the first time, evidence shows that it’s working.

Community solar allows customers to reap electric bill savings by subscribing to a share of a local solar project, rather than installing their own array. It’s an arrangement that ideally makes the benefits of solar more accessible to people who live in rental or multifamily housing and those who just can’t afford the upfront cost of rooftop systems. Forty-two states have community solar projects in place — but the precise nature of who has benefited remained unclear. Until now.

A June study by researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that analyzed data from 11 states found that people who adopt community solar are 6.1 times more likely to live in multifamily buildings, are 4.4 times more likely to rent, and earn 23 percent less annual income than rooftop solar adopters, who skew wealthy.

Community solar is delivering on its promise,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, the lead author of the peer-reviewed study, an affiliate at LBNL, and a renewable energy research analyst at Clean Kilowatts.

This study brought together demographic data, both measured and modeled, from more than 100,000 rooftop solar owners and 75,000 community solar adopters, O’Shaughnessy said. Notably, California wasn’t included; it lacks a robust community solar market — and regulators seem hell-bent on keeping it that way. Still, the analysis covers most of the key community solar markets,” which together cover about 4.2 gigawatts of community solar installed, or more than half of the national total.

Despite finding overall that community solar boosts clean energy access, the team found that the offering doesn’t increase solar access among minorities. Asians, Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinos aren’t any more likely to adopt community solar than rooftop solar — at least not yet.

The reasons are still foggy, but minority households may be more skeptical of how community solar is advertised, O’Shaughnessy said, citing feedback from a low-income community solar advisory group. Imagine a community solar project enroller shows up at someone’s door with a clipboard and says they can get free solar without installing anything; if they just sign up, they’ll start saving money immediately. A lot of people are really suspicious of that,” he said. It can sound too good to be true.”

Vulnerable households have been burned by predatory energy marketers in the past. Solar loan companies have misled families into getting Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans that locked them into payments they can’t afford. And alternative electric suppliers have lied, promising lower utility rates that have instead cost their customers tens of millions more.

Community-rooted partnerships, like those being forged by providers in Illinois, could help spread the word that the benefits of community solar are real, O’Shaughnessy said. It’s not a scam. It can save you money.” Community solar can reduce energy bills by 5 to 20 percent.

Although community solar is proving more equitable than rooftop panels, it’s still not perfect. The data suggest that community solar adopters tend to be a little bit more affluent,” he said, than the state average and less likely to rent or live in multifamily housing than the state population as a whole.

But favorable policies can boost community solar access. The paper’s authors analyzed demographics of community solar adopters in three states with programs for low- and moderate-income households: Illinois, New York, and Oregon. The team found that those who participated in the community solar programs not only had lower incomes but also were more likely to rent and to live in multifamily buildings than people who adopted community solar but didn’t participate in those programs. What’s more, program participants in Oregon were more likely to identify as minority households.

O’Shaughnessy doesn’t know why exactly a state program might expand community solar access for minorities, but he has a hypothesis he’d like to explore in future work. Having a program that’s known and more discussed,” with details published on a state website that residents can check out, might significantly bolster community solar’s credibility.

The Biden administration’s $7 billion Solar for All initiative is funding programs across the country to expand solar access for low- and middle-income Americans. Some of the money will go toward developing community solar projects — a move that this study indicates really will deliver the benefits of clean energy more equitably. 

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.