Who pays for community solar farms?

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Community solar is one of the newest and most innovative avenues for everyday people to access and support renewable energy. Solar gardens provide significant savings on electricity costs to the households and small businesses that subscribe to them, even as they generate revenue for the towns where they’re located and drive revenue to the project’s developer. But it can sound too good to be true: if community solar subscribers are earning a discount from the very beginning, then who is paying for the community solar farm?

Financing Community Solar

Like any other business venture, community solar projects need investors. The majority of financing for community solar projects comes from the private sector, and dozens of firms have sprung up around the country that focus specifically on these projects. In New York alone, their numbers include Distributed Sun, Lever Energy Finance, and C2 Energy Capital. As community solar continues to grow, household names like Morgan Stanley are also getting into financing community solar projects: one of its subsidiaries has dedicated $100 million to community solar.

Solar developers employ this initial financing to build the project, earning money to pay back their investors from three key sources:

  • Customers’ subscriptions - When you subscribe to a portion of your local solar farm, your energy bill goes to support the project. This provides a consistent source of revenue for the projects.

  • Renewable energy credits - In states like New York and Massachusetts, utilities are required to have a certain proportion of the electricity passing over their grid come from renewable energy. In both of these states, they get credit for this through the purchase of credits from renewable energy producers.

  • Tax incentives - In the short term, tax incentives may continue to provide security for investors. Often paid out over the first years of a project’s existence, these are a guaranteed return for investors, and thus can help drive more financing for these projects.

RELATED: Our Best Community Solar Garden Yet is Now Available to New Yorkers

Why give incentives for solar?

Tax incentives exist not because of some special interest connection (fossil fuel lobbyists still vastly outnumber clean energy lobbyists in Washington), but because they pay for themselves many times over. Increased solar investment makes our air cleaner, lowers our dependence on imported fuel, creates local blue-collar jobs in installation and maintenance; and these and other benefits mean that for every dollar invested in solar through these tax credits, the taxpayer has seen approximately $2.20 in economic benefit, according an NREL study.  If you’re interested in a deeper dive into government subsidies for solar energy, our blog post from September covers this thoroughly.

Solar energy: the cheap fuel of the future

Moreover, unlike fossil fuels, solar tax credits are scheduled to be phased out over the next five years. Solar is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world, and given that a rising proportion of these costs come from customer acquisition and permitting processes, there is substantial room to lower costs in the US. With continued innovation by companies like Solstice that are working to reduce the "soft costs" of solar, solar will thrive without subsidies–providing substantial economic and quality-of-life benefits to communities around the world.

Here’s How Much You Can Save With Community Solar.

By Forrest Watkins

Saving money is one of the biggest reasons that Americans are increasingly choosing to switch to solar energy. In fact, Solstice was founded for this very purpose: to bring affordable renewable energy to every American.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. It’s true, if your main goal is to maximize your long-term savings, that rooftop solar is probably your best bet--just as long as your roof is suitable and you’re okay contending with a $10,000-40,000 upfront bill.

Community solar, on the other hand, will bring you substantial savings as soon as your subscription goes live. All you have to do is sign up, and you’ll start seeing reliable savings without installing anything on your property and without worrying about any extra costs.

How much can I save?

The amount of money that you’ll save with community solar depends on the size of your monthly energy bill. We made an infographic that delves deeper into the topic in an easy-to-read format.

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Other Solar Options

There are other forms of renewable energy that various groups offer to U.S. households, but frankly, few of them compare to community or rooftop solar.

Electric utilities often offer the option of using your bill to support renewable energy, but it inevitably involves paying a few cents extra for each kilowatt-hour instead of saving. National Grid, for example, offers an “Energy Choice” program to its customers which adds an extra 6-20% to the typical energy bill.

Similarly, in states with deregulated electricity markets, households can choose to get their energy from a “third party provider” (Also known as an Energy Service Company, ESCO, or TPP). Some of these companies offer purportedly clean energy to their customers, allowing them to “lock in” a rate of electricity. If you read the fine print on those contracts, the rate will increase modestly over time (what the industry calls an “escalator”).

Unfortunately, the energy that these providers are selling are often produced in faraway places where wind and solar are much cheaper. And the reality is that a wind farm in Texas doesn’t pass its electrons 1500 miles to a home in upstate New York. It powers the surrounding area. Even if that were the way our energy system was set up, it would be highly inefficient--anyone in the power industry will tell you that you start seeing significant voltage losses after a few hundred miles. Needless to say, these companies are often offering their customer renewable energy that isn’t at all connected to the energy systems that they use on a daily basis.

Moreover, in their early days, these types of contracts were proffered as a way to guarantee that your energy rates stayed relatively constant while the prices of fossil-fueled sources fluctuated and increased over time. Unfortunately for some, the U.S. fracking boom has led to decreased energy prices in areas powered by natural gas, and many of those who signed contracts with these providers are stuck paying comparatively high prices.

This is the kind of graph that these providers would show their prospective customers. Looks good, right? (This graphic pulled from American Sentry Solar's website.)

This is the kind of graph that these providers would show their prospective customers. Looks good, right? (This graphic pulled from American Sentry Solar's website.)

Unfortunately, as RMI explains in this informative blog post, energy prices don't rise in a predictable curve. They've actually fallen in many places around the country as renewable energy and natural gas prices have plummeted, leaving many customers to pay artificially high power prices.

Unfortunately, as RMI explains in this informative blog post, energy prices don't rise in a predictable curve. They've actually fallen in many places around the country as renewable energy and natural gas prices have plummeted, leaving many customers to pay artificially high power prices.

Community solar is different. Rather than locking in a specific price schedule for their energy, with community solar you lock in savings. The number can vary by project, but with community solar, you save around 10 percent on the energy that your panels produce, so that no matter how the price of energy fluctuates, you’re paying less on your electric bill than you would if you weren’t a subscriber.

Best of all, you support local renewable energy--and you can cancel any time you want (with two month’s notice).

Our Best Community Solar Garden Yet is Now Available to New Yorkers.

Community solar is an easy way to ensure future generations inherit a healthy Earth.

Community solar is an easy way to ensure future generations inherit a healthy Earth.

By Forrest Watkins

There’s been a hum of excitement around the Solstice offices these past few weeks—and we can finally share what we’ve been working on. Today, we’re ready to announce we are offering you one of the best community solar deals we’ve seen.

Community solar allows households to subscribe to a solar farm in their area, supporting local renewable energy without installing anything on their property, and consistently saving on their electricity costs.

Solstice is ready to provide residents of Central New York and the Southern Tier, including the cities of Ithaca, Elmira, and Binghamton, with solar subscriptions that save them 10 percent on their electricity costs. And our favorite part: you don’t have to commit to the 20-year contracts that most projects require. This project signs you on to the same 10 percent savings, but you only have to commit for 6 years—and what’s more, there are absolutely no cancellation fees.

This is, without a doubt, our most accessible community solar project to date.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

There is only room for approximately 400 households in the projects, which are under development by local New York company Delaware River Solar. Each will be sited on former farmland, on two separate parcels near Chemung Road in Baldwin, New York.

 

Beyond the savings they provide and the renewable energy that they feed into the New York electric grid, these projects will also bring benefits to their communities. The project will provide additional revenues for the town, county, and school district, building the community through trusted local institutions. 

Delaware River Solar is a community solar developer based in New York, and will manage the project development and construction process. Ampion manages the software platform for the project that allows customers to sign up and pay their bills, while Solstice is raising awareness about the project and plugging communities into solar gardens in their area.

There's never been a better time to go solar.

There's never been a better time to go solar.

Solstice was founded to make solar easy and affordable for every American. Long contracts still prevent many people from participating in community solar, and that’s why this project is so exciting for us. We are beyond excited to bring you the utility bill savings that you need with shorter, easier contracts, and to work together with our community to bring renewable energy to more New Yorkers.

For individuals interested in owning their solar allotment, Solstice is also offering an option to purchase solar garden panels upfront. Those who pursue this option will be able to take advantage of tax credits as well as the standard energy production credits.

 

Don't miss out on this opportunity.

Get in touch with Solstice by filling out the form below.

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Snow, Sleet, and Hail, Oh My! Why Solar Still Works in Colder Climates

By Christie Young

If there’s one aspect of life in the Northeast that everyone here has experienced, it’s the crazy weather—blistering winters, rainy springs and autumns, and weather that continues to surprise you no matter how long you’ve lived here.

 
It’s always been like this.

It’s always been like this.

 

So if you’re considering solar energy for your home or business, it might seem like a stretch to think that solar panels can power the Northeast. They just seem better suited to sun-drenched southern states. But there’s less sun hitting Germany than the Northeast, and it is still a world leader in solar adoption. In fact, with just 1% of the world's population, Germany currently has 16% of the world’s installed solar capacity, providing approximately six times the proportion of national energy generation as compared to the US (and that includes sunnier US states!).

China presents another interesting example. With approximately the same geographical size and latitude of the US, it includes a similarly large range of climate conditions. And while we commonly associate China with air pollution, it actually leads the world in solar panel installations. Many of these gigantic solar farms are to the north and west, in areas like Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, at virtually the same latitudes to New York or Vermont. Beijing’s major investments in solar show that renewable energy can compete on the largest of scales, and across all sorts of geographies.

At the end of the day, while the New York you know isn’t always the sunniest, the reality is that solar panels are still economically viable and productive in areas across the state.

RELATED: 7 Cons of Solar Energy

 

Solar panels in New York?

It may also seem counter-intuitive that solar panels are more efficient in cooler climates. But it’s true—the lower temperature allows the electrons produced by the panels to travel through an electrical circuit faster and with less resistance. Some desert systems even use cooling systems to avoid overheating.

Snow can be tricky. It’s true that a snow-covered panel functions at only a fraction of its normal efficiency. The good news is that in reality, this doesn’t have much of an effect: snow generally slides off tilted rooftop panels quickly, especially when the sun shines and it begins to melt away. In particularly snowy conditions, though, cleaning may be required. Convenience is one reason that individuals are increasingly choosing to source their electrical use from community solar gardens, where panels are aggregated in a central location.

Related: Where are the best places for solar gardens?

 
The sun still shines in the winter.

The sun still shines in the winter.

 

Going green without the hassle

With community solar, you don’t have to worry about maintenance or weather. Solar gardens generally employ someone for full-time maintenance work, and this includes clearing panels of snow, dust, and debris, so that the solar garden operates at full potential, 24/7/365. (And it creates a loca job in the process!)

With the right maintenance and integration with emerging energy storage technologies, solar energy can power states across America.

Community solar has many other advantages over rooftop systems: no expensive installation, no upfront costs, and no maintenance or worries.

Solstice Helps Local Institutions Spread Solar in Their Community

By Forrest Watkins

An energy system that is renewable and fair for everyone will put communities first—and your community can help.

The Bridgewater Parish Church had always been dedicated to serving its community and protecting the environment. The organization’s leadership recognized the rising threat of climate change and the injustices introduced by environmental pollution, and wanted to find a way to bring more renewable energy to their community.

Leaders in the community encouraged members to “go green” by making energy efficiency improvements and by switching to solar energy. They discovered, though, that many of their members weren’t eligible to install panels on their roof.

That’s when Solstice came along. We informed them that their members were eligible to subscribe to a local community solar farm, saving 10% on their electric bill while supporting local renewable energy.

For the Bridgewater leadership, it was a no-brainer. With Solstice helping them to spread the word through events and follow-up support, they:

  • Fulfilled an important component of their mission: supporting clean, renewable energy and improving life in their community

  • Strengthened their community ties through leadership and shared work on an issue important to their members

First, the church committee signed up the church. Then, the pastor signed up his own home. And then congregants followed suit.

 
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Learn More About How Solstice Can Help Bring Solar to Your Community

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Solstice Helps Your Constituents Go Solar

A recent Yale study showed that the #1 reason that people go solar is because a friend or neighbor did. This means that solar spreads through communities, and that local leaders have the power to make a difference.

Moreover, the members of the Bridgewater Church aren’t alone. Approximately four in five American households can’t install solar on their rooftop, because their roofs are shaded or facing in the wrong direction, because they rent their homes, or because they can’t afford the upfront costs.

With Solstice, local organizations and businesses have a chance to have a positive impact in their community and strengthen their relationships with their members and constituents. We work hard to make community solar easy, organizing events, providing informational materials, and providing ongoing support to solar ambassadors in your community.

Community Solar and the Local, Sharing Economy

By Christie Young

It can feel like a contradiction: In an era of cheap air travel and video conferences, communities from around the world are taking up the call to go local.

As the harmful effects of globalization have become increasingly apparent, resistance has taken many forms. People trade their cars for ride sharing apps and public transit, or buy used goods from Craigslist instead of shiny new ones at the department store. Approximately 100 million Americans belong to one of our country’s 30,000 cooperatives.

In bringing things back to this smaller scale, re-localizing the economy gives people an opportunity to divorce themselves from faceless corporations and deal directly with people in their communities. And besides keeping dollars in local communities, this trend is modestly contributing to a decline in fossil fuel emissions.

Community Solar: Subscription and Ownership Models Both Bring Benefits to Local Economies

We see community solar as a chance to magnify that impact. Community solar is a mechanism that everyday Americans are using to collaborate on local energy production, gaining control over systems that have historically remained in the hands of large monopolies.

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Most community solar farms operate by allowing people to sign up for monthly subscriptions. This allows households to see immediate savings on their electric bill without any hidden costs or installation on their property, all while supporting renewable energy.

RELATED: Local Concerns: How Community Solar Farms Can Be Developed to Protect Their Local Environment

And while local ownership isn’t part of this model, these projects are in many ways driven by and benefiting their local communities. Financing for the projects is dependent on local engagement with the project: the solar gardens do not get built until households enroll in them. Moreover, projects distribute benefits to individual households in the form of reliable savings, but also to communities in the form of jobs, government revenues, and local clean energy.

Community Solar Ownership: Hurdles and Possibility

Going a step further, some communities have also begun searching for ways of bringing project ownership to local communities.

Colorado’s Clean Energy Collective (CEC; one of the nation’s 30,000 cooperatives!) built one of the country’s first community solar gardens: taking what was, at that point, just an idea, and building a thriving example of community-owned clean energy in Colorado. CEC sold the facility to 19 local homeowners upon its completion. Each member purchased about nine panels (2 kW) on average, and taking into account local clean energy rebates, spent an estimated $3,500.

The extra work involved in this approach can have its rewards. Owning panels can provide increased savings to individuals who are willing to navigate the paperwork involved in redeeming tax incentives and renewable energy credits.

RELATED: The World's 10 Most Beautiful Solar Farms

This ownership model may be the ideal form of community solar for those invested in the vision of a sharing economy: electricity generation for the people, by the people. A local facility produces clean energy, benefits the local economy by creating new jobs and reducing electricity costs, and ownership over the farm ensures that local communities retain control over their energy decisions.

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But many don’t have the savings to pay the costs upfront, and don’t qualify for financing. That’s why Solstice focuses on a subscription model for community solar. We know that low- and moderate-income families typically have higher energy bills than wealthier households, and will benefit the most from electric bill savings. For a local, sharing economy to benefit everyone, it needs to be accessible regardless of economic class—and that means models like subscription community solar.

Community solar is growing by the day. The Department of Energy projects that shared solar resources could comprise 49% of the solar market by 2020. More and more Americans are finding collaborative ways to switch to renewable energy, just like they traded personal vehicles for ride sharing apps. Local, sharing economies are rising to address our social and environmental challenges, and community solar will continue to be at the core of this transition.

Want to go solar? Let us know!

How many solar panels do I need to power my home?

By Forrest Watkins

Whether you’re looking into rooftop solar energy or a local community solar garden, it’s useful to have a rule of thumb to help you figure out how many panels you need to cover your energy usage. Using these simple facts, you can also get a handle on some larger questions about solar energy, like how much energy a solar farm produces and how many homes it can power.

We’ll go into more depth on the considerations behind these numbers in just a moment, but here’s what you need to know:

  • The average US residential solar installation is 5 kW. If we assume 250 watt panels, this means that the average solar home has about 20 solar panels.

  • To cover 100 percent of your energy usage, you may need more panels—especially if you have a large home or an energy-intensive addition like a swimming pool or central air conditioning.

To understand what this means for your household, you can calculate your panels based on how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity you use in a typical month. For a New Yorker, if you divide your total energy use by 1.22, you’ll get the kilowatt size of your system (how much energy your system can produce at its peak). You can then divide this number by 250 to get the number of solar panels that you need. The average New Yorker would thus need an 8.9 kilowatt system (35 panels) to cover their entire energy usage.

A map of the amount of energy the sun can provide in different areas of the earth. Image Credit: SolarGIS

A map of the amount of energy the sun can provide in different areas of the earth. Image Credit: SolarGIS

  • A home in New York will need more panels than a comparable one in Arizona, because southern desert climates see more sun than cloudier, more northern ones. This is less important than overall energy use, but still makes a significant difference. For example, a resident in Arizona that wanted to cover their entire energy usage with solar might use 6.6 kilowatts (26 panels), compared to a resident of New York, who would need an 8.9 kilowatts (or 35 panels).

Seem like a lot of solar panels for one rooftop? This is one of the reasons that the average solar installation is smaller than what would be required to cover an average household’s energy usage—and one of the reasons community solar is a great option for many households. In fact, with most community solar gardens representing between one and five Megawatts of capacity, a solar garden can power between 140 and 715 American households.

Without space restrictions, we can allot to your household the panels that you need to cover your entire energy bill, without installing anything on your property.

The largest project we've helped to enroll can power approximately 3,200 homes! Photo Credit: BlueWave Solar

The largest project we've helped to enroll can power approximately 3,200 homes! Photo Credit: BlueWave Solar

If you’re dedicated to putting panels on your rooftop, you can also squeeze in more energy capacity with higher-efficiency panels. Solar technology has advanced in leaps and bounds in recent years. Panels on the market today will have relatively similar efficiencies, but higher-end panels, inverters, and other equipment can bring incremental improvements in the efficiency of a solar system. This is generally only necessary and cost efficient when your space is limited.

Want to go more in-depth on the technical reasoning behind these numbers? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s PV Watts calculator is a great resource for calculating the output of different solar energy systems.

The Real Deal on Solar Subsidies

By Christie Young

It’s time to address the elephant in the room: government subsidies for solar energy.

It’s a common belief that solar energy isn’t viable without them. Some even argue that the government shouldn’t incentivize solar at all. When compared to fossil fuels, they say, the numbers don’t add up, and funding solar projects is a waste of money.

But there’s a lot more to the story.

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Fossil Fuel Subsidies Dwarf Solar Subsidies

It is important to discuss solar subsidies in the context of the existing energy landscape. The fossil fuel industry in the US has been the recipient of significant government subsidies since at least the early 1900s. It’s difficult to put an exact number on these subsidies due to complex policies and a lack of transparent data, but one 2015 estimate puts annual subsidies at $20 billion in the US alone. That estimate covers direct spending, tax breaks and unclosed loopholes, and subsidized access to land, resources, and infrastructure.

Globally, G20 country support for fossil fuel industries total $452 billion each year, compared to $121 billion in renewable energy subsidies across the world.

 
Source: g20climate.com
 

Beyond direct subsidies and tax breaks, there are associated costs of fossil fuels that are born by taxpayers. Burning coal releases toxins, radiation, and other forms of pollution into the air and causes adverse health effects which lead to millions of deaths per year. Natural gas, often touted as a low-pollution alternative, is often extracted through a process called fracking, which regularly contaminates nearby water supplies and can even increase the likelihood of earthquakes.

Those are just local concerns. All fossil fuels lead to changes to our climate, which in turn contribute to rising sea levels and significant losses to crop productivity, while simultaneously strengthening the destructive power of tropical storms (there is evidence that hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which were each worsened by climate change). These changes to our climate are incredibly expensive: one 2015 estimate from the EPA estimates a loss of $180 billion by the end of this century due to infrastructure repairs, the destruction of natural resources and loss of crops, and other causes. There will also be significant costs to human livelihood, as people lose their lifelong homes, land and even their loved ones.

A recent study from the IMF estimates that governments around the world spent a whopping 6.5% of global GDP - $5 trillion - in 2013 directly subsidizing fossil fuels or paying for the negative consequences that arise from their use. 

 

Plummeting Renewable Energy Costs Decrease the Need for Subsidies

At their peak in 2013, renewables received an estimated $13.2 billion in US government subsidies (only two-thirds the monetary subsidies received by fossil fuels). But subsidies are now declining. Several subsidy programs have since ended, and federal tax incentives will continue to decrease through 2022.

This isn’t just the story of renewables, though: We can trace similar subsidy patterns for the development of every modern energy technology. According to this 2011 study, US government support has historically spiked in the first 15 years of widespread market implementation, and tapered as prices begin to drop. To get off the ground, the US oil and gas industry required about five times as much help from the US government as renewable energy industry has used. Nuclear required twice that of fossil fuels: a whopping ten times what renewables currently receive.

The cost of solar has dropped 58 percent in 5 years, in part due to government support in developing the technology. But that support is becoming less and less necessary. In thirty countries, including Chile, Brazil and China, solar is now the cheapest form of energy excluding subsidies. This trend will likely continue as more nations see solar energy outperforming coal and other fossil fuels, enabling subsidy-free renewable energy development in every corner of the world.

 
Source: Solar Tribune

Source: Solar Tribune

 

And the argument for switching to solar has never been stronger. Solar panels’ carbon offset far outweighs any emissions resulting from their production. 90-97 percent of a panel’s materials can be recycled and made into new panels. They’re a fuel-free power source, ensuring long-term energy independence for our country and local communities, and the storage technologies that will allow us to go 100 percent renewable are getting cheaper by the day.

In fact, many solar industry leaders are calling for an end to solar subsidies. By accounting for the true costs associated with each energy source, they argue, we can take an open and honest market-based approach to building our next energy systems. Carbon taxes are already being implemented around the world, and many state utilities are working to put systems in place which compensate energy producers for the true value that they add to the energy grid.

With the breakneck progress of renewable technologies, critics’ arguments are disappearing by the day: the world just got its first unsubsidized solar farm, financed entirely with private equity, in the UK. The project was able to achieve this by locating itself next to an existing solar farm, (which lowered its infrastructure costs), but it represents a major milestone in the solar industry’s quest for competitive renewable energy. As solar panel and energy storage costs continue to plummet, it’ll only be a matter of time until unsubsidized clean energy is the norm.

Infographic: How to Bring Solar to Every American.

By Forrest Watkins and Moh Abujmia

It is our mission and our daily work to bring solar energy to every American household. In the years since our founding, we’ve gotten to know intimately the barriers people face in trying to go solar, and we believe that we have an answer: community solar.

Community solar allows you to subscribe to a solar farm in your area and see credits on your electricity bill. You support local clean energy without putting anything on your property or paying any extra costs—and you save money in the process.

Here’s how community solar brings clean energy and savings to your household:

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Community Solar is Solar for All

Every day, we hear from more people who have tried to go solar, but for one reason or another, are locked out of the market. A report from independent industry research group GTM Research found that 77 percent of American households are locked out of the solar market. Here’s why:

Unsuitable Roofs

Prior to the invention of solar energy, a shade tree was a coveted commodity. Now, it can cost you thousands in energy bill savings. In order to work with rooftop panels, a roof has to be unshaded, south- or west-facing, and relatively new.

What’s more, condo owners and other residents of high-density housing are out of luck. There simply isn’t enough space on a single rooftop to power all of those homes.

With community solar, you don’t have to worry about any of these barriers—you support local clean energy without installing anything on your property.

Renters

Renters rarely have control over modifications to their rooftops, and even if they do, the long-term commitments required for rooftop solar financing make it a complicated proposition. Until recently, community solar contracts have been modeled on rooftop contracts and lasted up to 20 years.

Fortunately, the industry is headed in the right direction. Solstice is now offering our first six-year contract, and we’re pushing for contracts that are even shorter.

Community Solar for Low-income Americans

Our energy systems have always distributed their benefits and downsides unequally. And though solar energy has to date given disproportionate benefits to middle- and high-income Americans, community solar is poised to make solar energy accessible for populations in lower income brackets.

Many individuals with relatively high FICO credit scores (above 680), but who live on fixed incomes, are already seeing savings from community solar gardens. But for the more than half of Americans who have lower credit scores (or no credit score at all), community solar remains inaccessible. That’s why Solstice is working to develop alternative credit score requirements that more accurately represent a customer’s ability to pay their energy bill.

Read More: Why Community Solar Can Solve the Solar Energy Equity Problem

Community solar is already bringing savings to households across the country and helping to power our global transition to clean energy. But long contracts and credit scores are still significant barriers to full solar access. Solstice is already working to lower those barriers, ensuring that this new form of solar energy can fulfill its potential, and bringing solar to every American.

The World's 10 Most Beautiful Solar Farms

By Christie Young

 

Solar energy: It’s clean. It’s renewable. It’s cheap.

Solar enthusiasts know all these things to be true, but often, we don’t consider the time and energy put into each project's design. As more and more solar farms are installed around the world, developers are getting creative, and making their projects more picturesque than ever.

 

1. Monte Plata Solar Project, Dominican Republic

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Nestled in the tropical greenery, the Monte Plata solar farm packs a whopping 69 MW, offsetting approximately 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide and powering 50,000 homes. It’s the largest solar farm in the Caribbean and consists of 270,000 solar panels.

 

2. Sangju City, South Korea

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On the Jipyeong Reservoir in Gyeongsang Bukdo Province, South Korea, are two 3 MW floating solar farm facilities (one shown above). Due to Korea’s relatively small land size, making use of the reservoir surfaces allows the country to increase solar capacity without significantly impacting the land nearby. As for its impact on aquatic ecosystems, the developer maintains that the floating farm decreases evaporation and creates a conducive environment for marine life.

 

3. Crescent Dunes, Nevada, USA

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What’s with this unique design, you ask? This Nevada solar farm utilizes concentrated thermal solar power (CSP) instead of panels that transform sunlight directly into electricity. The spiral arrangement of mirrors captures rays from the blazing desert sun and directs them to a center tower that contains molten salt. This salt is then used to heat water and power steam turbines. To get a better understanding of the sheer scale of this project, one must realize that each of those (seemingly) little mirrors is 37 feet wide and 24 feet tall...and there are over 10,000 of them. The tower in the center is 640 feet high. A project of this magnitude provides enough electricity for 75,000 local homes.

 

4. Datong, China

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The above photo of a panda-shaped solar farm in China was heavily circulated around social media, but it’s actually an artist’s rendition of the project. We still think the actual photographs are pretty cute, and love that the company is using their solar pandas to help educate Chinese youth about the importance of renewable energy. While many associate China with smog and pollution, forward-thinking policies from Beijing have put the country head and shoulders above the rest of the world in installed solar capacity.

 

5. Waianae, Oahu, Hawaii, USA

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Eurus Energy, a Tokyo-based renewable energy company, unveiled this 27.6 MW project in Waianae, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, earlier this year. The island state has pledged to get all of its energy from renewable sources by 2045. This initiative will not only help the environment, but it will also save Hawaii an estimated $3 billion a year that is typically spent on oil imports.

 

6. Andalusia, Spain

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The Andasol Solar Power Station in Andalusia, Spain, is also an example of concentrated solar power (CSP) technology, but unlike the Crescent Dunes plant, this one utilizes parabolic troughs rather than a central tower. Each trough (or row) has a tube containing extremely hot fluid (over 1,000o F) in the middle, which serves the same purpose as the molten sand in the tower at Crescent Dunes. The sun’s rays are bent inward toward the tube, ultimately heating water to power steam turbines. The Andasol station is the first of its kind in Europe, and construction began in 2006. It supplies electricity to approximately half a million Spanish residents.
 

7. Broken Hill, Australia

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The Broken Hill Solar Plant of Australia provides electricity to approximately 20,000 Australians in the outback. The city of Broken Hill, which can be seen in the background, directly benefits from this clean energy generation, as do several local mines.

 

8. Mojave Desert, California, USA

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Much like the Crescent Dunes facility in Nevada, the Ivanpah solar project in the Mojave Desert utilizes concentrated solar power (CSP) technology. While this desert oasis does make our list in terms of beauty, it wouldn’t top any lists in terms of efficiency or output: the farm must burn a large amount of natural gas each morning to commence operation, and output levels have been lower than expected. However, the farm has consistently increased its annual production since its opening in 2014.

 

9. Oxford, MAssachusetts, USA

Photo courtesy of BlueWave.

Photo courtesy of BlueWave.

Sure, we might be a little biased: the Barrett Street solar project in Oxford, Massachusetts, was one of the solar projects Solstice helped to fill this year! But looking at it nestled in the autumn foliage, we daresay it has every right to be included on this list of beautiful solar farms.

 

10. Postmasburg, South Africa

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Solar is booming in Africa. Rural areas which have never had access to electricity are now installing off-grid solar energy systems to serve their communities, allowing them to ‘leapfrog’ past traditional, fossil fuel grids and straight to renewable, clean technology. This 96 MW solar farm is located in South Africa, and claims Google as one of its financial backers.

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Want to join the clean energy revolution? Switching to solar has never been easier, but it can also be overwhelming. Check out our handy guide: Understanding Your Solar Options.

Local Concerns: How Community Solar Farms Can Be Developed to Protect Their Local Environment

By Forrest Watkins

Solar energy provides many important benefits compared to fossil fuel generation, perhaps most notably the ability to address large-scale environmental problems like pollution and climate change. But like many of you, we’re also concerned with our solar farms’ local impacts. If a solar farm is developed without considering effects to its local environment, it can harm biodiversity and take fertile land out of cultivation, exacerbating the negative impacts of climate change.

Not every solar farm has followed a neutral path. A solar project which will power one of Six Flags’ theme parks would clear trees from 66 acres of land. The company has continued development despite pushback from environmentalists over habitat destruction.

Developing Responsibly

Luckily, there are alternatives to this destructive mode of development--and they’re already being implemented. The key to responsibly developing solar farms is to build the projects on previously developed or contaminated sites. Our most recent projects provide perfect examples of the right way to develop a solar farm.

RELATED: WHAT IS COMMUNITY SOLAR?

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Capped Landfills and Superfund Sites Ideal for Solar Construction

The Solar Garden in Dover, MA that we worked on in partnership with Bluewave sits atop a capped landfill next to the town’s waste transfer station. Because the land is contaminated with potentially hazardous chemicals, many kinds of development are prohibited, and farming is out of the question. Solar farms are one of the only types of development that can occur on contaminated sites such as this one, and are a good way for towns to increase their revenue without putting solar panels on land that could be better used for farming, development, or conservation.

Brownfields: An Alternative

Fortunately, there are a limited number of contaminated sites for solar development. Brownfields, or previously developed land, provide an alternative that avoids the habitat destruction and environmental loss.

Our most recent project, in Oxford, Massachusetts, was built atop a former pig farm. The land had previously been cleared, and was covered with piles of refuse and waste. The project’s developer, BlueWave Solar, cleaned up the land, distributing loam that they unearthed during the project’s development to local farmers and opening up swathes of fertile land in the project’s vicinity for future cultivation. The land will lie fallow for the project’s duration, a process which restores soil fertility.

The Barrett Street Solar Farm. Photo Credit: BlueWave Solar

The Barrett Street Solar Farm. Photo Credit: BlueWave Solar

HOUSES OF WORSHIP

Building rooftops are ideal locations for solar panels, given that they are generally not useful for other activities. Businesses that buy into solar generally keep the energy and credits they produce for themselves, but mission-driven community organizations could provide a good source of rooftop space in the future.

Houses of worship participate in community solar both as hosts of the solar panels themselves, and as spaces where congregants can organize to advocate for shared solar. In the case of the University Park Community Solar project, a group of private individuals invested in a small solar garden sited atop a local church. The investors benefitted by selling the panels’ electricity back to the church, while the church received a discount on their energy costs.

Responsible Solar Farm Development Must Become an Industry Standard

As we outlined in this blog post, states are beginning to take notice of the need to develop solar farms in a responsible way. Massachusetts’ most recent round of solar regulations provide incentives for projects to be sited on brownfields and capped landfills. Minnesota solar developers are now working together with commercial beekeepers to provide protected habitats for pollinators on solar power sites.

These are important steps, but it’s ultimately the responsibility of solar developers and other industry players to push for solar development that respects the integrity of local ecosystems. We are proud to work with mission-driven developers that work to fulfill these ideals, and will continue to advocate for their advancement in the industry.

Everything You Need to Know About Massachusetts' New Solar Regulations

By Forrest Watkins

Despite its long winters and northern position, Massachusetts has long been one of the leading states in solar energy. Now, a new set of regulations will define the state's solar market for the next several years. For those too busy to dive into dense regulatory documents, here’s a summary of the new guidelines.

The Road to SMART Regulations

Quick starts and stops in Massachusetts’s community solar market have shown people’s enthusiasm for solar energy, but also the importance of well-designed energy policies. Until recently, Massachusetts community solar projects have benefitted from two state incentive programs: virtual net metering and renewable energy credits (RECs).

Net metering allows producers of renewable energy to get credit for their contribution to the electric grid. In the case of community solar, this means that customers who subscribe to a local solar garden will see credits on their electric bill for the energy that their allotment produces and see a net discount on their energy costs.

The Massachusetts State House. Credit: AbhiSuryawanshi, Wikimedia Commons.

The Massachusetts State House. Credit: AbhiSuryawanshi, Wikimedia Commons.

Massachusetts, like many states, has also implemented a renewable energy portfolio standard, setting enforceable goals for the proportion of energy that comes from renewable sources each year. In order to achieve these goals, utilities must buy renewable energy credits (RECs) from renewable energy producers. Solar energy has benefitted especially from these incentives, receiving a higher degree of compensation for special solar renewable energy credit (SREC).

This incentive regime was so popular among solar developers that they quickly hit new capacity caps, triggering a need for emergency regulations for the next phase of solar development.

New Regulations Will Help Growth, But Still Lack in Key Areas

Out of this process, which has dragged on for months and effectively paused the market’s development, came the SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) program. Recently submitted to the Department of Energy Resources, SMART replaces the state’s current solar incentive program (SREC II), covering the next 1.6 gigawatts of solar capacity (just under 1.6 GW have been installed to date) and giving the state’s solar market plenty of room for growth.

SMART gets rid of the REC program’s preferential treatment for solar and revamps net metering in an attempt to more accurately value different forms of solar energy. Previously, electricity produced by all solar farms was compensated equally. Now, all solar projects will receive a base rate of compensation (determined using an initial competitive process), which will then be adjusted with “adders” and “subtractors” to account for positive and negative social and environmental impacts.

This community solar project in Dover, MA, is among those sited on capped landfills.

This community solar project in Dover, MA, is among those sited on capped landfills.

Projects can receive adders for being sited on locations such as rooftops, select bodies of water, brownfields, capped landfills, and unused agricultural land, while they would be hit with a subtractor for developing a project on previously undeveloped land. Adders are also available for projects that encourage equity in the solar market, such as community solar and public projects, and projects that serve low-income communities.

Related: Why Community Solar Can Solve the Solar Energy Equity Problem

The most recent version of the regulations pleased solar advocates by eliminating hard caps on the number of projects that can benefit from adders. Unfortunately, the submitted regulations retain many of the features that hamper solar developers’ ability to serve low-income communities.

Still, the compensation rates for low-income projects see steep cuts under SMART. No new projects serving private affordable housing projects have been built under the most recent net metering regime, and SMART compensation levels are still lower.

Furthermore, SMART does not allow households to subscribe to community solar projects across the lines of utility territories. This particularly limits community solar access for residents of the Boston area, where open land is scarce. Low-income urban households spend a high proportion of their income on energy costs, and would see the greatest benefit from the savings that community solar offers. Until these households can subscribe to any solar garden in the Commonwealth, they will miss out on these savings.

The SMART program is a new era for community solar in Massachusetts--one that will bring growth, but which will require redoubled efforts to expand solar inclusion. Equity has always been one of the most prominent failures of our energy system, and it’s no surprise that institutions continue to be challenged in their attempts at inclusivity. Citizens, advocacy organizations, and industry players will need to redouble their collaborative efforts to bring about true equity in our energy systems.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Community Solar Brings You Savings on Your Electric Bill. These Are the Policies that Make it Happen.

By Forrest Watkins

Community solar is one of the most affordable forms of renewable energy. By allowing you to subscribe to a local solar farm, community solar makes it possible for you to see a discount on your energy supply without paying any additional costs

So what makes community solar possible, and what are the rules that compensate solar gardens for the power that they produce?

Net Metering Gives You Credits on Your Monthly Electric Bill

Community solar takes advantage of rules similar to the ones that give energy savings to households with rooftop solar panels. A policy called “net metering” allows households to be compensated for the renewable energy that they contribute to the electric grid. For every watt they produce, their utility will give them a credit that they can use to pay for their future energy use.

You can think of net metering as "running back the meter".

You can think of net metering as "running back the meter".

For community solar, utilities use a process called “virtual net metering”, which means that when your community solar farm produces energy, you get the credit on your utility bill, as if you had produced it on your own roof.

Most community solar customers reserve as many panels as they need to cover their typical energy usage, meaning that these credits will usually cover most or all of their electric bill. Instead of your dollars flowing to your utility’s standard power mix, which will usually include natural gas, coal, and nuclear, you directly support local, renewable energy.

Related: Solstice Makes it Easy to Sign Up for Community Solar

Renewable Energy Credits Compensate Solar Developers for Adding Renewable Energy to the Electric Grid

29 states now have renewable portfolio standards, which require that a certain proportion of the energy that electric utilities provide to their customers come from wind, solar, and other renewable resources. Many of these states allow utilities to fulfill this requirement by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). Solar panel owners earn RECs when they feed renewable energy into the electric grid, and can then sell those credits to utilities or to other institutions that wish to offset their energy use.

The Massachusetts State House in Boston. Massachusetts is one of the most important community solar states. Credit: Daderot at Wikipedia

The Massachusetts State House in Boston. Massachusetts is one of the most important community solar states. Credit: Daderot at Wikipedia

In the case of community solar, the RECs provide a source of revenue that helps solar farm developers pay down their projects’ costs.

State governments in 19 states have established rules to make sure that households get credit for the energy that they produce in their local solar garden. These rules position community solar as an important way of scaling up renewable energy in America. Community solar can bring renewable energy and energy bill savings to the approximately four in five American households that can’t install solar on their rooftop, and Solstice is working to make that future a reality.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Solstice Makes it Easy to Sign Up for Community Solar

By Forrest Watkins

Solstice was founded on the knowledge that nearly four out of every five Americans can’t get access to rooftop solar, and the belief that community solar―a central solar installation to which nearby residents can subscribe, in exchange for renewable energy and electric bill savings― can bring affordable renewable energy to each of those households. This new model for solar energy is already helping many new households go solar, especially those with shaded or poorly-oriented roofs or that can’t afford the upfront costs of rooftop solar.

A BlueWave Solar community solar project in Oxford, MA. Photo Credit: BlueWave Solar

A BlueWave Solar community solar project in Oxford, MA. Photo Credit: BlueWave Solar

Solstice’s Approach to Increasing Solar Access

Solstice makes it easy and straightforward for community organizations and residents to sign up for community solar.

This work is urgent. Climate change is already disrupting American communities and communities around the world, and air pollution kills 5.5 million people every year. These impacts disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. Making affordable renewable energy available to every American citizen is the only way to ensure a prosperous and just future for all.

Most media coverage of climate change focuses on storms and sea level rise, but one of the most significant threats it presents to humanity is lost food production.

Most media coverage of climate change focuses on storms and sea level rise, but one of the most significant threats it presents to humanity is lost food production.

Research from Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication suggests that Americans overwhelmingly support expanding solar energy use. To us, this means one thing: that Americans will switch to solar energy if given the opportunity. For the millions of households that can’t install rooftop solar, community solar can deliver renewable energy that saves money on their electric bill.

That’s why we work hard to make signing up for community solar as easy as possible. We take the time to help people understand all of their options and to walk them through every step of the signup process.

The first question we usually get from our customers is “What is community solar?” So while we love working directly with customers and communities, we also know that to maximize the impact of community solar, we need to spread the word.

Network Effects Amplify Our Impact

Solar is quantifiably contagious: According to a Yale study, the number one reason why people go solar is because they have a friend or neighbor who went solar. So, instead of going door to door and talking to strangers--the way residential solar has always been sold--we help entire communities go solar. We work with businesses, local community organizations, and houses of worship, enrolling both the organization and their members in local solar gardens. This magnifies our collective impact and allows local communities to take leadership on climate change, and it creates stronger ties between these local institutions and their communities.

This approach allowed the First Parish Unitarian Church in Bridgewater, MA and many of its members to go solar. The church had long been committed to social justice, and had been searching for a way to go solar for over a year. Unfortunately, the church's status as an historical building prevented it from installing panels on its own roof, so church leaders opted to pay an additional fee to get renewable energy from the church’s electric utility.

Then, this past spring, we reached out to church leaders and informed them about community solar. By enrolling with Solstice, the church would save 10% on its electricity bill ($8000 in total savings) and avoid additional fees. The congregation voted to join the community solar program, excited to both save money and support local clean energy.

The Bridgewater First Parish Church―powered by community solar!

The Bridgewater First Parish Church―powered by community solar!

Once the church had approved the measure, the pastor and individual parishioners also signed up their own households for community solar. We trained congregants to take leadership in pushing for more renewable energy adoption in their community, and they began informing their friends and neighbors about community solar. Leveraging these community organizing techniques to accelerate solar adoption can save money for both solar developers and customers, and it expands the impact of community solar around the country.

Technology Drives the Adoption of Solar

Our founders honed these community organizing techniques through work on the Obama campaign and at advocacy organizations. Those experiences taught them that technology can amplify the viral effect of community organizing, and Solstice has leveraged these insights to craft a superior online customer experience. Solstice is the only company that pairs these grassroots community organizing techniques with a scalable customer management digital platform. By using technology to make the customer enrollment and management process as simple as possible, we can spread community solar to more communities.

Next Steps: Fulfilling the Promise of Community Solar

Even as we work to enroll people in existing solar gardens, we know there is still work to be done to make community solar work for every American. 20-year contract lengths and stringent credit score requirements can make difficult for renters and low- and middle-income households to access community solar. To remedy this, we are working with our partners to develop shorter contracts and alternative qualifying metrics that will work for Americans with lower credit scores. (Keep an eye out for a blog post with more detail on this work!)

At Solstice, we believe that community solar will be the force that brings renewable energy to every American. We are working hard to educate people about community solar and to make it easier to enroll in local solar gardens, lowering costs for community solar developers and bringing savings to our customers.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Solstice Statement on the Events in Charlottesville

It has been a tragic and disturbing week in America. Events in Charlottesville and in Washington have given a national platform to ideologies of violence and hatred. The same racism that threatens people of color daily claimed another life, that of Heather Heyer, an activist and advocate for social justice. In Boston, Solstice’s home, a holocaust memorial has been vandalized twice in six weeks, and white supremacists plan to rally this weekend on Boston Common. We cannot progress as a country when we fail to condemn, or when we actively defend, individuals who commit violence and march to uphold racism and oppression.

Equally, though, this past week has renewed our determination to eradicate from our society all forms of hatred--including racism, white supremacy, and antisemitism. Solstice was founded to achieve equity in an energy system that has far too frequently failed to meet the needs of low-income communities and communities of color. We are committed to work for environmental and economic justice within the context of broader struggles for dignity and equality.

As individuals and as an organization, we express solidarity with those who fight for these ideals in other movements and communities. Solstice stands with Heather Heyer and the 19 people who were injured in the same attack, all targets of racist violence, and everyone who works daily to dismantle systems of oppression.

--The Solstice Team

Reaffirming Values in a Growing Company

Members of the team enjoy a home-cooked meal and some Vermont-local Long Trail Ale at our August 2017 off-site in Killington, VT.

Members of the team enjoy a home-cooked meal and some Vermont-local Long Trail Ale at our August 2017 off-site in Killington, VT.

Just a year ago, Solstice was comprised of five full-time team members, largely volunteering their time for the organization’s mission and working out of a collection of donated office spaces. As they began to gain real traction with customers and investors, the team sat down in 2016 and distilled their shared ethics into five core values. They believed that these values could grow with the company and allow team members to hold each other accountable as new challenges arose.

EQUITY 

Expand the benefits of the green economy to all

INTEGRITY

Do what's right, not what's easy

CURIOSITY

Stay humble and hungry to learn

GRATITUDE

Recognize others first for successes

 

HARD WORK

Opportunity favors sweat and execution

Fast forward to August 2017: As Solstice undertakes projects in a wider geography, the team has nearly tripled and diversified in many ways, from country of origin to professional expertise. This growth has paved the way for a Solstice renaissance: new ideas, new paths to making a more inclusive solar market, and new ways to get the word out about community solar. It’s an exciting time, as our biggest ideas finally start to edge towards reality, but there is also risk in growth: many companies change as new perspectives are folded into their team, and something is lost of the values that initially defined them.

As it grows, an impact-driven company like Solstice needs to take time to understand again how its mission and values make contact with reality. So, this month, we took some time out of the office at an offsite meeting to examine the company we’re building, the roles we play in the work of energy equity, and the values that we claim.

And beyond the make-or-break moments―hiking up a waterfall with a distracted puppy in tow, or the contentious but fruitful choice between Vermont’s famous local brews―it was the quiet of the evenings which drew us to these necessary conversations.

The team, including our honorary solar evangelist canine and distracted puppy, Kugo, visited Thundering Brook Falls while in Killington.

The team, including our honorary solar evangelist canine and distracted puppy, Kugo, visited Thundering Brook Falls while in Killington.

Instructions From the Past

We began our offsite meeting by attempting to answer the question, What makes a good society? One of the foundations of our discussion was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s seminal Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written in 1963 in response to white southern preachers’ criticisms of the civil rights movement. Dr. King fiercely defends his peaceful activism and condemns the more complacent supporters of racial equality, arguing that “constructive tension” is necessary to produce social change. He concedes that he is an extremist in the same vein as Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson: an extremist for positive change, or more particularly, an “extremist for love.”

In addition to King’s forthrightness and moral clarity, we folded in works from Seamus Heaney, Howard Thurman, David Brooks and Billy Collins. We read the words of these leaders and thinkers not to place ourselves among them, but to retrace their mental patterns and find our own paths to a good, or a better, society. Taken together, these pieces formed a powerful foundation for action: Be firm in your convictions and act upon them, they told us, but as you do, stay humble, and be ready at any moment to re-examine those convictions. Fight against systems of oppression while examining how you may be participating in those same systems. Be always an extremist for love; there is no end to this work.

For the first time, (almost) our entire team was under one roof, with our marketing consults Zach and Justin flying from the West Coast, our co-founder Steve coming up from D.C. and our newest fellow, Moh, joining us just two days after landing in the U.S. from Palestine!

For the first time, (almost) our entire team was under one roof, with our marketing consults Zach and Justin flying from the West Coast, our co-founder Steve coming up from D.C. and our newest fellow, Moh, joining us just two days after landing in the U.S. from Palestine!

The Roles We Play

Finally, we arrived at the point of all this questioning, and began to examine the role that we play in making change. We know why we do this work. An unjust status quo has ruled our energy system for too long: fossil fuels have helped humanity advance in many ways, but they’ve also had disproportionately negative impacts on the communities they benefit least--poor communities and communities of color. This inequity has contributed to millions of premature deaths every year and brought the effects of climate change to entire nations.

To believe that solar energy can completely revolutionize the way humankind functions, is extreme. To believe that we will transition to a carbon-neutral society in the next quarter-century, is extreme. To believe that low- to moderate-income communities should be at the forefront of this transition, and that they should have a greater say in our energy systems, is also extreme. Yet this is the kind of extremism that Solstice can get behind--because we want to work to create the more equitable society that we envision.

Sean, a member of the Outreach team since last April, helped decide on the values that define Solstice's culture.

Sean, a member of the Outreach team since last April, helped decide on the values that define Solstice's culture.

The Power of Stories

On the final night of this reflective weekend, each of us told a five-minute story from our life. Sparking laughter and silence, we unfolded tales of our adventures and mistakes, those we love and those we’ve lost, and the handful of times in our lives that the universe has provided an opportunity when it’s least expected. As simple as it was, this exercise created an environment in which our own stories meshed with the values that we collectively hold: Gratitude, for the moments in life that are worthy enough to be told to an audience, Integrity, the cornerstone of the trust we needed to share these hidden moments, Curiosity, allowing us to listen and learn from each other, Hard Work, for the preparation of a story and its brave execution, and finally, Equity, which lets each member of the team, no matter their background or experience, have an equal voice in this setting, to be heard openly, and to champion their personal truths.

A not-so-serious moment.

A not-so-serious moment.

More than 250 Million Americans Can’t Access Rooftop Solar. Here’s Why.

By Forrest Watkins

Solstice was founded on the idea that every American should have access to affordable solar energy. Building solar is now almost universally cheaper than fossil fuel plants, and industry experts say that solar costs will continue to fall. You may have heard us cite that 80 percent of Americans are locked out of the solar market.

Three of the possible reasons why four in five Americans can't access rooftop solar.

Three of the possible reasons why four in five Americans can't access rooftop solar.

Here is the data we used to arrive at the number:

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How Many Americans Can’t Install Rooftop Solar?

Owning or leasing rooftop solar is generally only realistic if you own your home, have a relatively high FICO score (over 680), and live in a state with policies that require utilities to compensate you for the energy you produce. Under these requirements, a 2015 report from independent clean energy research organization GTM Research puts the percentage of Americans left out of the rooftop solar industry at 77 percent, or approximately 90 million American households.

GTM breaks down the reasons that US households can't install rooftop solar in their 2015 Solar Market Outlook. The biggest factor is that the third of Americans who rent their homes generally cannot install rooftop solar, while other important elements include policy, access to credit, and physical barriers.

This is a useful, big-picture look at the US solar market, but it’s not everything we need to know. To really understand what’s happening with solar access in the US, we need to dig deeper into the numbers that make up this graph.

How Many of Our Rooftops Work for Solar Panels?

A 2015 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) states that 81 percent of  residential buildings have suitable space for at least 1.5 kilowatts of solar on their rooftops. This number reflects factors like rooftop area, shading, and rooftop orientation.

In an attempt to put a more realistic number on the households who can actually install panels on their roof, the researchers then chose to exclude the 37 percent of households who rent their homes or who live in buildings too tall to easily install solar. According to these criteria, 49 percent of American households can install at least 1.5 kilowatts of rooftop solar.

This number gives an idea of how many households are entirely excluded from rooftop solar due to shading, rooftop orientation, building size, and homeownership status, but when it comes to solar, size matters. Only 20 percent of rooftop solar arrays installed today are less than 1.5 kilowatts in size. The average array size is 5 kilowatts, and you’d need slightly more than that to power the average family home. The same NREL study indicates that only 39 percent of small buildings could host an array 4.5 kilowatts or larger, regardless of factors like homeownership.

Many Americans Can’t Install Rooftop Solar Due to Credit Requirements

Since few Americans can afford the upfront cost of rooftop solar ($15-40k on average), a full analysis of solar access needs to include access to credit. Rooftop solar financing typically requires a credit score of 650 or more--a requirement which less than half of the American population fulfills (32 percent of Americans have a credit score lower than 650, while one in five has no credit score at all).

Given that so many Americans don’t have the credit ratings required by solar financiers, the number of people left out of the solar market is likely significantly higher than NREL estimates. Community solar has the potential to remedy this problem.

Solar for All

Solar will only go mainstream when access to it is democratized, and today, nearly four in five Americans can’t install rooftop solar. Some of the obstacles confronting these households have to do with the laws in their states, but the majority of them are issues that community solar is well adapted to address. These communities are the reason we come to work in the morning, and we’ll only be truly satisfied when they have full and equal access to their own solar energy.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

8 Pros of Solar Energy

A 2009 shot features then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden surveying a solar garden in Denver, CO, with Blake Jones, CEO of Namaste Solar Electric, Inc. The solar industry has grown exponentially since this photo was taken.

A 2009 shot features then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden surveying a solar garden in Denver, CO, with Blake Jones, CEO of Namaste Solar Electric, Inc. The solar industry has grown exponentially since this photo was taken.

Solar energy is already changing how our energy systems make and move electricity, and there is ample evidence that given the right conditions, it can completely revolutionize the system itself. We focus most of our attention on community solar and its benefits, but solar energy exists in many forms and it’s worth taking the time to celebrate each of them. We’re releasing this post in conjunction with an article detailing the cons of solar energy, so that you can make an informed decision regarding your energy source.

1) CLEAN ENERGY

Solar energy does not pollute its surroundings, nor does it emit any of the greenhouse gases which drive climate change. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, lead to air pollution, contamination of water supplies, and millions of premature deaths in the areas where they’re mined, processed, and burned. Additionally, emissions from the use of fossil fuels are already causing major disruptions to the planet’s normal heating and cooling cycles, and this is already beginning to have serious impacts on humanity’s way of life, particularly for farmers and vulnerable communities. Choosing solar energy over fossil fuels is one of the best ways to decrease carbon emissions and build a sustainable energy system for future generations.

2) RENEWABLE ENERGY

While the planet’s oil reserves have lasted longer than early estimates suggested, eventually they will run dry. On the other hand, we will continue to receive the sun’s energy for billions of years. This makes solar energy renewable. Even more than wind and hydropower, solar energy is infinite and plentiful: in just one hour, the sun provides more energy to Earth than humanity uses in a year. Every year, we are becoming ever more advanced in harnessing this power efficiently.

3) CHEAP ENERGY

Solar and wind energy have recently emerged as the cheapest sources of electricity. In many places, this is is true even without government subsidies for any form of energy. When factoring in the negative externalities of fossil fuels, which include public health spending, oil spill clean-up, mining fatalities, natural gas leaks, water contamination, and other consequences, the cost gap widens even further in favor of solar. In fact, an August 2017 report shows that if these costs were included and added to pre-existing fiscal subsidies, global fossil fuel subsidies would total roughly $5 trillion annually. If the fossil fuel industry were to be held accountable for the true cost of production, renewable energy would emerge as, by far, the cheapest form of energy.

4) JOB CREATION

The solar industry alone added 75,000 jobs to the U.S. economy in 2016. If politicians want to honor their promises to boost job growth, promoting solar energy is a great place to start.

The solar industry alone added 75,000 jobs to the U.S. economy in 2016. If politicians want to honor their promises to boost job growth, promoting solar energy is a great place to start.

The method by which fossil fuels are extracted and produced is heavily mechanized, while solar and other renewables require labor for planning and installation. Despite its relative youth, the solar industry already employs more people in electricity generation than oil, coal and natural gas combined. In 2016 alone, the wind and solar industries created 100,000 jobs right here in America. Because a large portion of these jobs involve site-specific fabrication and installation, they cannot ever be outsourced.

5) LOCAL & NATIONAL ENERGY INDEPENDENCE

Solar energy allows individual Americans to produce their own energy, and community solar brings the same benefits to communities. On a national level, this allows the US to rely less on the global energy market, protecting us from unstable energy prices and supply disruptions. This concept is called “energy resilience”, and some, like long-term Intel CEO Andrew Grove, have argued that it is an important component of our national energy security interests.

Households that switch to solar also lessen their dependence on their local utility company. While most utilities work hard to make positive contributions to their communities, many of our customers have expressed frustration with their utilities, and solar energy can offer them a way to sidestep this monopoly or even become fully independent.

6) BENEFITS TO THE GRID

Recently, national figures have suggested that renewables may hinder the reliability of our electricity grid. But independent research has shown that residential solar generation, as it is today, benefits the grid and the consumer.

For example, because rooftop solar energy is generated and consumed locally, less energy is lost in long-distance transmission and distribution (which costs ratepayers an estimated $21 billion annually). Additionally, solar panels generate maximum electricity during the daytime, when most utilities experience peak demand. Therefore, fewer investments in infrastructure are required to handle this demand. Finally, an increased solar capacity helps utilities avoid costly clean-ups of fossil fuel plants while maintaining the same level of electricity generation. The best move for utilities, experts suggest, is to embrace solar for everyone’s gain.

7) VERSATILE APPLICATIONS

While the term “solar energy” most often brings rooftop panels to mind, photovoltaic cells - which convert the sun’s rays to electricity - are only one form of solar technology. Solar thermal systems utilize solar energy to heat water for residential or commercial use. Concentrated solar power (CSP) systems use mirrors to concentrate solar rays into receivers that heat water into steam, powering steam turbines to generate electricity.

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, located in the desert near Las Vegas, NV, is the first utility-scale concentrated solar project. The spiral of mirrors heats the central power tower (which stands 640 feet tall and is filled with molten salt) which in turn creates steam to use for electricity generation. 

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, located in the desert near Las Vegas, NV, is the first utility-scale concentrated solar project. The spiral of mirrors heats the central power tower (which stands 640 feet tall and is filled with molten salt) which in turn creates steam to use for electricity generation. 

Finally, good old fashioned sunlight provides light and heat for our homes and commercial buildings…no technology required!

8) LOW MAINTENANCE

Solar panels require very little maintenance. For those who install rooftop panels, cleaning is required only once or twice a year to ensure maximum electricity production. Snow cover will more seriously impede a panel’s ability to function, but because panels are tilted for maximum generation, snow will generally slide off or melt away relatively quickly. With this simple maintenance, systems are generally expected to last for 40 or more years and have a standard 20-year warranty.

Solar farms, on the other hand, allow for efficient maintenance as they are all gathered in one place, and are usually more accessible than a rooftop installation.

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Want to join the clean energy revolution? Switching to solar has never been easier, but it can also be overwhelming. Check out our handy guide: Understanding Your Solar Options.

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Why Community Solar Can Solve the Solar Energy Equity Problem

Only 13 percent of households with rooftop solar earn less than $45,000 per year, even though this group of Americans makes up a full quarter of the US population. This imbalance reflects the fact that low- and middle-income (LMI) communities, which also are disproportionately affected by air pollution and climate change, have to overcome systemic barriers when trying to go solar.

Why is Solar Access an Issue of Social Equity?

In our work at Solstice, we’re confronted daily with evidence that these numbers aren’t simple correlation. Rooftop solar generally requires a household to own their home, eliminating from the market the third of Americans (disproportionately low-income) who rent their homes.

On top of that, households that need financing for the approximately $15,000-20,000 upfront cost of a standard system are usually required to present a credit score of at least 650. This score is just below the median range for people with credit scores, meaning that this requirement leaves out nearly half of Americans with scores, plus the one in five who are entirely without a credit score.

Related: Understanding Your Solar Options

Community Solar Can Bring Solar to Every American

Solstice was founded on the idea that Americans will participate in the clean energy revolution if given the opportunity. We believe that community solar is the best way to bring solar access and energy bill savings to every American. Here’s why:

With rooftop solar, installers have to put the panels on their customer’s home, and if that customer has problems paying their bill, then the company has to make a hard decision: Allow the customer to keep using their solar panels free of charge, or invest the money to send their team out and take their panels back off of the roof. The industry calls this a “stranded asset.”

Community solar is different. Community solar allows residents to subscribe to a local solar farm, offset their energy use with renewable energy, and see savings on their utility bill. If a community solar customer defaults on their payment, the project developer can simply switch them out with anyone else who wants to sign up. Project developers keep customer waiting lists for exactly this purpose.

Related: Community Solar for Households

The solar industry is also the source of hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

The solar industry is also the source of hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

Future Community Solar Innovations Required

In the coming years, this ability will likely change the face of solar access in America. Right now, community solar contracts are modeled after rooftop solar. This means long (20-year) contracts and high credit score requirements.

Because this model lowers the risk of replacing customers, though, Solstice is pushing solar project developers to experiment with shorter contracts and alternative ways of qualifying customers. By allowing for shorter contracts and qualifying metrics that more accurately represent households’ ability to pay their energy bills, community solar can allow renters and low- and no-credit Americans to sign up for solar and see savings on their energy bill.

Solstice works to expand the limits of solar access. We are already taking reservation forms for five- and ten-year contracts on an upcoming project, and we are working to develop an alternative to traditional credit scores that will allow project developers to qualify people based on their bill payment history. We believe that by making these solutions the market standard, we can bring community solar to every American.

7 Cons of Solar Energy

 
 

At Solstice, we work every day to put solar energy in the hands of more American households. That’s because we believe that solar already provides concrete benefits over fossil fuel systems, and that it has the potential to make our energy systems fair for everyone and give local communities independence.

At the same time, we think it’s important to be upfront about the downsides and potential pitfalls of any technology. The only way to avoid problems is to acknowledge and plan for them, and as our industry continues to grow, that’s exactly what we plan to do.

1) NON-OPTIMAL SITES

We’ve spoken to thousands of individuals about community solar, and many have expressed concerns that solar installations could take useful land out of commission or cause harm to the environment. They point to solar farms that are planned on active farmland, nature reserves, or in land that is home to sensitive ecosystems. They’re not wrong: it’s not environmentally friendly to clear cut a forest for a solar farm, as some solar companies have done.

Thankfully, there are plenty of sites that are already suitable for solar farms, like capped landfills, superfund sites, or fallow agricultural land. These solar projects make use of otherwise unusable land and provide much needed revenue to municipalities, farmers, and other stakeholders. We believe it is imperative to partner with responsible solar developers that help, not harm, the environment.

2) END OF LIFE WASTE

Solar panels are usually guaranteed by their manufacturer for at least 20 years, although they may last even longer than that. Some of the oldest panels are still working after 30 years, and some experts expect new panels to last for 40-50 years. But no matter how long a panel lasts, eventually it will need to be decommissioned. And like other electronics, dead solar panels can’t be thrown directly into the landfill because of the toxic materials that they contain.

Since solar installations have scaled up so rapidly in recent years, relatively few solar panels have reached the end of their lifetimes. In the decades to come, though, there will likely be a significant increase in demand for solar recycling. Experts have estimated that in 2050, the value of recyclable solar materials could exceed $15 billion, equivalent to 2 billion panels or 630 gigawatts of power. Right now, 90-97% of a decommissioned panel’s materials can be recycled and made into new panels or sold back onto the commodity market.

At the moment, only the EU has adopted regulations around the disposal of solar panel waste, but other countries will need to follow their lead to avoid significant environmental impacts. Of course, panel costs may rise if companies are made responsible for recycling the panels at the end of their usable lifetimes, but just as with fossil fuels, it is important to keep markets honest by incorporating the true costs of our energy systems.

3) INTERMITTENT AVAILABILITY

One of the biggest challenges to powering our society with solar energy is simple: The sun isn’t always around. Solar panels stop generating when the sun dips below the horizon, but most people still want to have power flowing to their homes. Battery storage costs, much like solar over the last decade, are falling sharply, but for most uses, they’re still not economical. Other, more low-tech energy storage solutions have been proposed, and some are already being implemented--this is likely to be one of the areas of the energy sector that sees the most innovation in the coming decade.

4) SEASONAL VARIATIONS

A solar panel in Florida will generate more electricity than a panel in Maine, because there is simply less solar energy hitting each square foot of land. Seasonal variations in daylight hours also make polar regions less well-suited for solar power.

But lower solar potential doesn’t mean that northern (and southern) regions cannot thrive on solar energy. Germany’s success in the solar arena is a prime example: the country receives less sunlight per square mile than virtually anywhere in the continental US, but it has shattered solar generation records.

This map from the National Renewable Energy Lab demonstrates how all of the continental U.S. is relatively well-suited for solar energy, and even Alaska - with the same solar resources as Germany - would still benefit from investment into solar power.

 
 
 

5) CHANGING POLICIES

Because the solar market is still developing and disrupting a market that has historically been tightly regulated, changing policy has been one of the decisive factors for new solar projects. Solar technology has improved to a point that, in many regions, it is economically viable without federal and state incentives (reaching what the industry calls “grid parity”). But changes to favorable solar policies like net metering have created uncertainty for project developers and hampered investment.

Much of this political opposition comes from utility companies, who argue that solar households don’t pay their fair share for grid maintenance, but other studies have shown that solar households bring cost-saving benefits to the grid as well. It’s not yet clear what scale solar will have to get to to make a meaningful difference in energy prices for non-solar households, but policy experts are already working to design policies to make sure energy pricing is fair in the long run.

6) AESTHETICS

Some people do not like the look of solar panels, whether they are on a rooftop or in the form of a solar farm. Manufacturers have taken note and are creating innovative solutions to this problem. Tesla, for example, currently offers solar roof tiles in a variety of forms (that are indistinguishable from normal tiles), and competitors like Forward Solar Roofing are joining the race to entice homeowners whose primary concern is aesthetics.

7) ROOFTOP HASSLES

Approximately four out of every five Americans cannot install rooftop solar panels. The majority of these people own a condo or apartment, rent their homes, have a low credit score, or their roof is shady or facing the wrong direction. These limitations have given rise to solutions like community solar, which circumvents the need for personal financial investment and cumbersome installation by allowing households to subscribe to a local solar farm and see savings on their utility bill.

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Ultimately, most of solar’s disadvantages stem from the fact that it is still a relatively young technology that’s disrupting one of the most stable, regulated industries in the country. Despite explosive growth in the US, solar is still a long way from powering our national grid. But millions of Americans are working to solve the problems confronting the industry, and at Solstice, we tend to think that it’s only a matter of time.

Now that you’ve read about the disadvantages, check out our article detailing the benefits of community solar.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!