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.

A BlueWave Solar community solar project in Oxford, MA.

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:

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.

---

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.

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

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.

---

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!

Does Community Solar Power My Home?

By Forrest Watkins

Some critics of community solar point out that the energy from your local solar garden will have to flow through the electricity grid to reach your home. In other words, the electrons from your solar garden do not go directly to your house. But while there might be some level of satisfaction from using electrons produced on your very own rooftop, many overestimate the independence that on-property solar affords its owners.

There seems to be a misconception floating around that by simply installing rooftop solar, a household can wash its hands of polluting energy once and for all. But when it comes down to it, the power of the decision to go solar lies in getting these projects built, in doing our part to transition our society to a sustainable energy system. As with rooftop systems, community solar projects can’t get financed and don’t get built until they have guaranteed customers, and in that sense, the power that your community solar panels produce is yoursit wouldn’t exist without you.

Related: Nearly 80 percent of Americans Can’t Install Rooftop Solar: How Community Solar Can Bring Clean Power to Every American

Is Rooftop Solar Different from Community Solar in Powering My Home?

Electricity is like water: once it enters the lines that take it from source to home, all of its particles mix together. This means that by the time the energy reaches your home, dirty power and clean are impossible to separate.

While this may seem to differentiate rooftop and community solar systems, though, it actually means that all grid-connected systems are functionally very similar. During the day, rooftop solar households use what they need of the power they produce, and the rest flows into the grid to be used by others. With community solar, all of the power flows directly into the grid, offsetting the homeowner’s power use.

At night, everyone draws the power they use from the grid.

And it’s true, some us can swing the $30,000 price tag to install solar and batteries and cut ties with the grid entirely. But the rest of us who make the decision to go solar are guaranteed to be using some of those ill-gotten electrons.

Grid-connected rooftop solar doesn’t provide a backup power system for power outages, either: for technical and safety reasons, all grid-connected solar arrays are required to shut down during blackouts.

So, does community solar directly power your home? Under the strictest definitions, no. But if your priority is doing your part to build local solar energy, you can breathe easy with community solar.

 

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Where are the best places for community solar gardens?

We recently wrote a blog explaining what a solar garden is (think of a smaller-scale solar farm that serves the needs of local residents) but almost as important: Where are these gardens?

COMMUNITY SOLAR STATES

Big picture: Today, sixteen states have enacted legislation enabling community solar projects: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, plus Washington DC. New Mexico and Virginia are also considering similar laws. Also called “virtual net metering laws,” this legislation allows households to benefit from solar that is located somewhere in their area, and not on their own rooftop.

CAPPED LANDFILLS

One ideal site for a community solar garden is on a capped landfill. Because the land is contaminated, many kinds of development are prohibited, and farming is out of the question. This option is attractive for towns who would like to increase their revenue, but don’t want to put solar panels on valuable land that could be better used for farming, development, or conservation. The Dover Solar Garden in Dover, MA sits atop a capped landfill next to the town’s transfer station, and is one of Solstice’s most recent projects.

RELATED: just how does community solar work?

SUPERFUND SITES

Superfund sites are locations that have been polluted by hazardous waste, and have been identified by the EPA for cleanup. Just like capped landfills, they are unusable for most purposes. One example is Groveland Wells, in Massachusetts. A facility producing plastic and metal parts had been located there, but it was identified as a superfund site in 1982 after it was discovered that the company running it had failed to properly dispose of its toxic waste. Cleanup by the EPA began in 2000 and concluded in 2014. Now, the site hosts a 3.6 MW solar array, which powers 525 local homes.

PRIVATE FARMLAND

Some farmers are offering their excess land for community solar projects, providing them with a consistent and relatively risk-free source of supplemental income. They receive a fair market price for leasing out their land, and electricity is sold either to a predetermined group of residents through a subscription model or sold directly to the utility.

PUBLIC LAND

One of the pioneering community solar projects was Clean Energy Collective’s 78 kW Mid-Valley Solar Array in western Colorado. The half-acre site was leased from the Mid Valley Metropolitan District, providing revenues to the town and clean energy to eighteen off-taker households. When it was turned on in 2011, this community solar project was the first of its kind in the nation, and paved the way for increasingly large projects. This land wasn’t being used for any other purposes, and by transforming it into a community solar garden, multiple stakeholders (including the solar developer, residents and municipality) were able to reap the benefits.

HOUSES OF WORSHIP

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.

Solstice’s work with the First Parish Unitarian Church in Bridgewater, MA is an example of congregational participation in an off-site solar garden. Because the church was a historical building, it could not host the panels on its own rooftop. Instead, Solstice partnered with them to enroll the church, as well as a group of its congregants, in a local community solar garden. The First Parish Unitarian Church has always been dedicated to protecting the environment, and Solstice provided them with a way to put their values into practice with community solar.

SOLAR IN YOUR COMMUNITY?

These are some of the most common ways that a solar garden can manifest, but people all over the country are getting creative in finding new ways to host solar arrays - all while creating local jobs and lowering our carbon footprint.

 

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Understanding Your Solar Options

By Forrest Watkins

Solar is booming in America, and there are many options for getting access to your own solar power, so it can be difficult to know which option is best for you. Today, we’re going to lay out the most common options and help you understand their benefits and drawbacks.

The first thing to consider when you’re thinking about going solar is, can I (and do I want to) put solar panels on my own roof? If your home is in the 20 percent of American rooftops that is structurally sound, shade-free, and faces south or west, you’ll probably see the biggest financial benefit from installing solar panels on your home.

There are a few different options to get panels on your roof:

 

1. Buy Your Solar Panels Outright

If you really want to maximize your savings and you can afford the upfront expenditure (an average cost of $10,000-$15,000 before tax credits), your best option is to pay for your panels outright. You’ll need to find an installer you trust and pay for the panels, equipment and installation costs, but once they hook your system up to the grid, you should start seeing savings on your energy bill, you’ll enjoy the tax benefits associated with ownership, and your upfront investment typically will pay off in 4-8 years.

 

2. Finance Your Solar Panels with a Loan

Most banks will allow you to finance a solar system through a home equity loan, which uses your house as collateral. Low interest rates and tax deductions make this the most cost-effective option, but institutions like Sungage and Solar Mosaic offer solar loans, which are financed based on your future savings. You’ll typically pay nothing upfront and pay a monthly cost until you pay back your loan (normally 10-20 years). At the end, you own the panels and the associated tax benefits.

 

3. Lease Your Solar Panels:

Many major solar installers, like SunRun, let you lease your solar panels. This option allows you to go solar without any upfront cost, paying a monthly fee and seeing savings on your energy bill. Contracts last for the normal life of the solar panel (~20 years), and at the end, most contracts will give you the option extend your lease or to pay down the system and own it outright. This option is nice in that you aren’t taking on extra debt, but be careful--if you do hope to own your system eventually, a leasing plan can significantly reduce your savings.

 

4. Buy Your Solar Power via a Power Purchase Agreement

In practice, power purchase agreements (PPAs) are very similar to solar leases. There is no upfront fee, but instead of paying a monthly fee for the panels and seeing savings on your energy bill, you’re locking in an electricity rate for a period of 20 years, that is projected–but not guaranteed–to be lower than utility rates. You do not own the panels, and you won't see the tax benefits directly--those go to the company who financed and installed the system. You’ll generally see some savings on your bill, but they'll generally be even less than with a lease.

 

If you aren’t able to install panels on your own roof, you’re not alone: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that nearly four in five Americans can’t install solar on their rooftop. But in 14 states and the District of Columbia, there is now an option for these households.

 

5. Buy into a Local Solar Farm

Known as community solar, this option lets anyone sign up for an allocation of panels in a nearby solar farm and see savings on their energy bill. Since there is no need to install anything on your home, this is the most universal option, allowing you to go solar regardless of your rooftop or ability to pay the upfront hardware costs.

 

 

Got it? Information overload? Here's a handy chart comparing your options:

How Does Community Solar Benefit the Environment?

By Christie Young

It can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to ‘going green,’ and misinformation about solar energy may have you scratching your head about what’s really best for the environment. Since community solar (and renewable energy in general) is such an important facet of a healthy environment, we wanted to answer one of the most pressing questions our customers have: How does community solar benefit the environment?  

Recent technological innovations have allowed humans to more efficiently harness the sun’s power. The rapid adoption of new solar energy technologies is in part a reaction to the consequences of two centuries of fossil fuel burning, which has polluted the air, contaminated the planet’s water and causes millions of premature deaths each year. Producing and consuming fossil fuels also releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, disrupting our planet’s normal climate cycle. We’re already seeing the consequences of climate change, and it’s not just about rising sea levels.

Solar Benefits

Solar energy is both clean, as it doesn’t cause pollution nor emit carbon, and renewable, as the energy supply from the sun is unlimited. Fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of solar panels, but these emissions are dropping dramatically as solar capacity increases, and the carbon offset of solar panels far outweighs the emissions generated from their manufacturing. 

When the average American household switches to solar energy, approximately 5 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions are offset each year - the equivalent of 5,335 pounds of coal not burned. But not everyone has equal access: it is estimated that 80% of Americans cannot install rooftop panels. At Solstice, we want to make it easy for families, regardless of their income or homeowner status, to make the switch to solar, and that's where community solar comes in.

The community solar revolution

Community solar is a mechanism that allows households to access clean, inexpensive energy via a local solar garden, thus bringing solar energy to the mainstream. By creating conditions that allow all Americans to utilize solar, our dependence on and use of fossil fuels will decrease accordingly. That means less pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Community solar is still relatively young in its conception and implementation, and there are still real obstacles in bringing community solar to the mainstream. This is at the heart of Solstice’s mission: not only to promote community solar projects, but to make sure that all Americans can access them. Renewable energy must go mainstream in order for humanity to live within the Earth’s limits, and for that to happen, it must be affordable for all Americans. 

Our goal is to enroll 50,000 customers over the next five years, and in doing so, we’ll help the US reduce our carbon emissions through the addition of 250 solar farms, avoiding roughly 285,000 tons of CO2 a year (the equivalent of 274 million pounds of coal). On top of that, Solstice customers will save $12 million annually. We love that we’re working towards a solution that is great for the Earth and your bank account.

Want to read about the other benefits of community solar? Check out our previous blog post.

 

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Solar Gardens: A Community Garden for Clean Energy

Up until recently, you needed a large farm or a home garden to be able to participate in your food production. Yet both have their problems. Massive farms produce the bulk of our food, but their cost-saving measures often result in mistreatment of animals, and healthy, fresh food is often less available in poorer neighborhoods. Home gardens have been a popular solution for some, but a person needs both time and property to significantly supplement their diet this way.

Community_garden.jpg

Increasingly, community gardens and small community-supported farms (CSAs) have stepped up to address this gap. Phat Beets Produce, in Oakland, connects small farmers of color with urban communities that lack access to “healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food”, while maintaining a community market-garden aimed at educating fellow residents about healthy food cultivation.

American solar energy is now facing a similar problem. While large, impersonal utilities are adding more and more solar farms every year, their projects are often far from the public eye and require customers to pay premiums, excluding many Americans looking to save money on their electricity bills.

Solar panels are going on more rooftops every year, but they give participants little opportunity for impact beyond their own household. They also exclude low and moderate-income Americans, who usually don’t own their homes or have the savings or credit ratings to support the panels’ upfront costs.

Solar Farms vs. Solar Gardens

Community Solar Gardens are already solving many of these problems in communities in Massachusetts, New York, and ten other community solar states. Typically located in previously unused (or unusable) spaces, like capped landfills, superfund sites and the rooftops of local institutions and businesses, solar gardens are smaller-scale solar farms that allow residents to subscribe to a reliable supply of local solar energy with no upfront cost.

Like community gardens, solar gardens bring a valuable resource to communities that previously couldn’t access that resource--all while binding those communities closer together.

What are the Benefits of Community Solar?

By Christie Young

Solar energy is taking off, and you might be wondering how - and why - to make the switch. We’ve laid out some of the benefits of community solar so you can decide for yourself.

Solar energy is taking off, and you might be wondering how - and why - to make the switch. We’ve laid out some of the benefits of community solar so you can decide for yourself.

No rooftop required

Community solar allows households to tap into a local shared solar farm (sometimes called a solar garden) which are installed in spaces such as warehouse roofs, superfund sites, capped landfills, or other unused land.

You don’t need to own your home (or rooftop) to participate - anybody with an electricity bill should be eligible, including renters, condo owners, or those with a roof unsuitable for solar. Solstice is working to bring community solar projects to as many households as possible.  

No bothersome installation

NREL estimates that 49% of American homeowners are not eligible for rooftop solar panels due to their roof’s orientation, shade, or structure. In addition, some homeowners don't want to go through the process of finding a contractor, buying the right panels, and installing them on their own roof, or they simply cannot afford the upfront investment. When accounting for the more than a third of Americans who rent their homes and those who are otherwise ineligible, roughly four out of five Americans can’t install rooftop solar.

No upfront costs

At Solstice, we work primarily with subscription-based community solar. You don’t buy the panels, but instead subscribe to the electricity produced by your allocated panels in the shared solar farm. Your allocation is determined by your historical energy usage, so your monthly electricity usage is covered by the production of your solar panels.

Cheaper utility bills

Community solar subscribers save money on their electricity bills, usually receiving a 5-15% discount. This is made possible by the plummeting price of solar technology, state and federal incentives, and pricing agreements between the solar developer and the utility.

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.

Less pollution

A direct effect of our continued reliance on fossil fuel energy is pollution: these fuels contaminate local water sources with toxic chemicals, leading to cancer and other health problems, and destroy natural landscapes and animal habitats.

Solar energy, on the other hand, produces little (if any) greenhouse gasses. Other than the fuels used to manufacture and transport the panels, solar panels produce no polluting gasses.

Supporting the local economy

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 the USA.

Even the most vocal supporters of the fossil fuel industry can’t help but see the potential of renewable energy: President Trump recently announced $32 million in funding for small businesses across the sector. The solar industry provides good, blue-collar jobs that are spread out all over the country, supporting hundreds of thousands of American families while also building a cleaner, greener USA.

Clean energy lessens our dependence on fossil fuels

The science is clear: the CO2 emissions caused by humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels are causing our planet to warm at an accelerating rate. The consequences of this man-made climate change cannot be overstated. Between rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns, and unpredictable agricultural conditions, our way of life is increasingly threatened. The time to act is now.

Switching to solar energy (and other renewable energy sources) is one of the most important steps to reducing our carbon emissions and ensuring the health of our planet.

 

WANT TO GO SOLAR? LET US KNOW!

Our Vision: Solar for Everyone

By Forrest Watkins

What will it take to bring renewable energy to every American? We believe that this is one of the most important questions facing our country today.

A solar array is installed in America every two minutes, driving energy savings to American families and allowing them to participate in the renewable energy revolution.

Still, 80 percent of us can’t install rooftop solar--and there’s no single cause. There are plenty of people that have considered installing solar on their homes, but have discovered that for whatever reason--trees shading their home, a poor rooftop orientation, or structural problems--they can’t. Others have trouble paying upfront materials and installation costs, or don’t have the right FICO score to participate in solar financing programs. Renters, including young people, have little control over their building’s solar status.

Solstice was founded on the belief that community solar can address these obstacles and bring solar to every American. With community solar, residents subscribe to a shared solar farm in their area and receive instant savings on their utility bill.

This should open solar access to every bill-paying customer, but that’s not the case--yet. Risk-averse solar financiers currently require contracts to be modeled after rooftop solar, with 20 year contract lengths and a high credit score requirement.

We’ve already helped fill several community solar gardens with households that can meet these terms, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to put up our heels. We’re pushing developers to offer renter-friendly contracts, and we’re working to develop an alternate qualifying metric that will bring savings to those who need it most: low- and middle-income Americans.

People have long asked what it will take for people to act on climate change. We believe that given the opportunity, everyday Americans will take part in the renewable energy revolution--so we make it our job to give them that opportunity.

Solstice is solar for all.

 

Want to go solar? Let us know!

Solstice Customers Spread Word to their Neighbors

By Christie Young

Many of our customers have called us asking for a way to tell their friends and neighbors about their participation in a solar garden. That’s why the Solstice team recently printed and distributed yard signs to participants’ houses in the Dover, MA area. We had a ton of fun speaking to locals that are just as excited as we are about community solar.

Dickson Smith resides in Dover, MA and works as a recruitment specialist in the financial services industry. He considered rooftop solar but ultimately decided not to pursue it. He's excited to be part of this shared solar project right next to the local transfer station, which he visits often.

Dickson Smith resides in Dover, MA and works as a recruitment specialist in the financial services industry. He considered rooftop solar but ultimately decided not to pursue it. He's excited to be part of this shared solar project right next to the local transfer station, which he visits often.

Solstice is the bridge between the solar developers that install solar farms and the residents that want clean, cheap energy but have been locked out of the solar market to date. We’re a team of mission-driven individuals who know that solar energy is a crucial factor to ensuring that the next generation inherits a beautiful world, and we want to make sure everyone gets to be a part of it -- regardless of income, credit score, or renter status.  

Jeff Abrams and his son, Sam, live in Dover, MA. Jeff owns and manages apartment buildings in the greater Boston area and works as a microfinance consultant. Jeff was concerned about the financial liability of having expensive equipment on his roof, and decided against it. For Jeff and his family, being part of a community solar garden was much more appealing.

Jeff Abrams and his son, Sam, live in Dover, MA. Jeff owns and manages apartment buildings in the greater Boston area and works as a microfinance consultant. Jeff was concerned about the financial liability of having expensive equipment on his roof, and decided against it. For Jeff and his family, being part of a community solar garden was much more appealing.

We understand the challenges, too. Anything that has to do with a utility bill is, generally speaking, exceedingly complex and just as boring. Everyone’s been visited by third-party electricity providers at their doorstep, and it can be hard to know what the best choice is for you, your family and your bank account.

Bill, a recently-retired biologist and researcher of animal communication, currently lives in Natick, MA. His connection to the natural world made him passionate about protecting it, and he sees solar energy is a vital part of the green future. The tall maple tree in front of his home prevented him from installing rooftop panels, but he is now an enthusiastic participant in the Dover solar garden.

Bill, a recently-retired biologist and researcher of animal communication, currently lives in Natick, MA. His connection to the natural world made him passionate about protecting it, and he sees solar energy is a vital part of the green future. The tall maple tree in front of his home prevented him from installing rooftop panels, but he is now an enthusiastic participant in the Dover solar garden.

That’s why we work step-by-step with our customers, using plain English (and sometimes Spanish!) so that everyone understands exactly what they’re signing up for, how it works, and what the benefits are. We build relationships with everyone we meet, oftentimes developing personal connections, because we care about our customers. They’re more than just a client: each participant is contributing to the clean energy revolution while saving their hard-earned money, and that’s a cause in which we’re proud to take part.

Want to go solar? Let us know!

Community Solar in Action: A Trip to the Dover Solar Garden

By Christie Young

_DSC7794.JPG

This past week, the Boston-based members of the Solstice team (and honorary canine solar ambassador, Kugo) took a trip to visit our new community solar farm in Dover, MA. This 1.4 MW facility supplies electricity to local residents at a reduced price, and sits on top of a capped landfill next to the town’s transfer station. It’s an ideal place for a solar farm, as the land can’t be used for anything else due to the toxicity of the old landfill. It’s in a relatively remote area, surrounded by greenery, but participants can still visit the source of their cheap, clean electricity when they come to the dump to drop off their trash. Best of all, the land belongs to Hale Reservation, and rents from the solar farm lease go directly to helping them conserve this beautiful nature.

The project is expected to offset approximately 1,300 metric tons of CO2 each year, equivalent to removing 270 cars from the roads or planting 1,250 acres of forest. The project will also create local jobs and help Dover achieve Green Community status, which will allow the town to apply for additional grant money from the state. It’s truly a win-win-win-win for everyone involved!

Our Community Outreach Associate, Madeline, and customer Doug, who serendipitously visited the solar garden at the same time as the team.

Our Community Outreach Associate, Madeline, and customer Doug, who serendipitously visited the solar garden at the same time as the team.

One of our customers, Doug, happened to stop by with his family, and was happy to indulge us in another photoshoot with our Community Outreach Associate, Madeline, who had guided him through the Solstice enrollment process over the past couple of months. When Doug signed up with Solstice, he was allotted a specific amount of the electricity generated by the panels, based on his past average energy usage. Through a mechanism called ‘virtual net metering', Doug receives a credit on his bill based on how much electricity his particular portion of the farm produces. Doug doesn’t own the panels, he subscribes to their benefits: that’s why there’s no upfront cost for him. His participation through Solstice guarantees savings on his electricity bills, and he's happy to know he is supporting clean energy, benefiting his local community and the planet as a whole.

 

Want to go solar? Let us know!

What is Community Solar?

By Forrest Watkins

Our customers are right to ask: just what is community solar? It may seem like a simple question, but the term covers a range of different offerings, and it’s important that you understand your options before you sign a contract.

At the most fundamental level, community solar involves a shared solar installation that customers can tap into, offsetting their energy usage with renewable sources and receiving savings on their electricity bill. This allows people whose roofs are unsuitable for solar panels--too shady, too old, or the wrong orientation/angle--and people who own condos or apartments to access clean energy.

A community solar farm in Dover, MA.

A community solar farm in Dover, MA.

Where are community solar farms located?

We’ve all seen solar panels going up on rooftops, and many of us have seen pictures of utility solar farms that go on for miles. Community solar farms generally fall somewhere in the middle. Many community energy installations are built on capped landfills, open fields, or the roofs of warehouses, supplying energy to the electricity grid and allowing nearby residents to finally take part in the solar revolution.

What makes community solar possible?

Community solar takes advantage of rules similar to the ones that give energy savings to households with rooftop solar panels. “Net metering” allows people who produce their own solar energy to sell that energy back into the 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 this 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.

solar garden2.jpg

Ownership or Subscription?

Generally speaking, there are two types of community solar. In the ownership model, you buy or lease part of a solar farm for an upfront fee. Every month after you sign your contract, you’ll see a credit on your utility bill for the energy that the panels generate--allowing you to earn back your investment over the life of the contract. Owning the panels may also make you eligible for federal tax credits and state incentives.

This model provides solar access for many new customers, but there are many more people who don’t have the savings to afford such a significant upfront cost. That’s why we have a soft spot in our hearts for the second kind of community solar.

The Subscription Model

Under this option, the customer pays no upfront fee at all and instead receives their solar electricity as a monthly service. We help them sign up for enough panels to cover their energy use, and then they can enjoy their discounted solar electricity. As with the ownership model, participants see a credit on their utility bill for the energy that their panels generate. Customer savings vary depending on the geography and solar developer, but they usually range from 5 to 15 percent.

Because there’s no upfront cost, this kind of contract allows new communities to access solar energy. And at Solstice, we’re pushing that boundary even further. Most community solar companies require a 20-year contract and a 700 FICO credit score to sign on to these community solar contracts, but we want to change that. By offering shorter contracts and finding better ways to qualify people for our projects, we hope to bring community solar savings to renters, young people and low-income communities--to those who need those savings most.

Every day at Solstice, we meet more people who are interested in going solar. We encourage everyone to do their own research and find out what’s best for them and their families, whether it’s putting panels on their roof or enrolling in a community solar farm.

Want to go solar? Let us know!

Douglas, one of our customers at the Dover Community Solar Farm in Massachusetts, with Solstice Outreach member Madeline Iffert. Madeline helped walk Douglas through the signup process, and he'll start seeing his net metering credits once the solar farm goes online this summer.

Douglas, one of our customers at the Dover Community Solar Farm in Massachusetts, with Solstice Outreach member Madeline Iffert. Madeline helped walk Douglas through the signup process, and he'll start seeing his net metering credits once the solar farm goes online this summer.

Solar for All: Sparking Community Solar Inclusion

By Kelly Roache

lowerincome solar.jpg

It is said that it is “expensive to be poor.” This is a reality faced by millions of low-to-moderate income Americans--and home energy bills are no exception. Despite beating fossil fuels on both price and growth, the potential of renewable energy to relieve this burden remains largely unrealized. Through innovative approaches to customer creditworthiness and financial inclusion, Solstice is working to expand affordable, accessible community solar for all.

Power struggle: the low-income burden

Low-to-moderate income households face severely limited access to renewable energy. While the 49 million American households earning under $40,000 annually account for 40% of homes, they comprise less than 5% of solar installations. At the same time, these individuals bear a higher energy burden, spending a disproportionate share of their earnings toward utility bills, even as energy costs decline. Low-income households pay on average three times as much for energy as their wealthier counterparts. They likewise experience the brunt of the ill effects of climate change, producing disproportionate impacts. For instance, race and income are closely correlated with proximity of one’s home to a coal plant.

For low-income households, shared solar short-circuits

Community-shared solar holds the promise to level the playing field by dramatically increasing access to and affordability of clean energy. After all, solar gardens will constitute up to half of the solar market by 2020. However, low-to-moderate income individuals still face steep obstacles to community solar participation. For instance, many don’t meet outdated FICO credit score requirements of 680 or more, which are intended - but hardly proven - to mitigate customer defaults. Half of Americans have a credit score less than 680, while one in five has no credit score. Thus, such an offering fails to serve low-to-moderate income Americans who could use solar savings the most.

Solstice aims to energize community solar’s promise

Solstice is employing financial innovations to expand low-to-moderate income community solar inclusion. Supported by an award from the Department of Energy, we are combining data science and pilot projects to challenge market assumptions about low- or no-credit households. Solstice is developing an alternative qualifying metric - or “EnergyScore” - that is both more inclusive and accurate in predicting customer defaults than FICO. This EnergyScore incorporates information on utility payment history to enhance the creditworthiness of households who make consistent, on-time bill payments. Solstice will implement the EnergyScore to qualify low-to-moderate income individuals for community solar in pilot projects, thereby continuing to build the body of evidence required to scale this inclusion.

Solstice remains committed to community solar for all. Through our work to increase access and affordability for low-to-moderate income households, we look forward to realizing a just, democratic, and bright energy future.

Want to go solar? Let us know!

Going Solar: Understand Your Options

By Isaac Maze-Rothstein, Jonah Bader, Emily Claps, and Danny Tobin

These days, everyone seems to be talking about going solar, but when you start looking into the different options, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The terms are confusing, and “one size does not fit all.” Read on for help on navigating the many options available.  

Rooftop solar (putting solar panels on your roof) is still the most common way to go solar, and the main options are:

  • Buying the solar panel system outright with your own savings;
  • Getting a solar loan;
  • Leasing your roof.

Buying the panels outright is the best financial deal, with a yearly return on investment of 40-70%, but it can cost $10,000-$30,000 upfront, even after tax breaks and incentives. Solar loans can make this option more affordable (learn about offers in Massachusetts here), but financial institutions often require a high credit score. For people who are turned off by the high upfront cost or have credit scores under 680, leasing panels can be a great alternative.

If you lease your system, you sign an agreement with the company that owns the solar panels. In exchange for a set monthly payment, they install the panels on your property, and you enjoy the electricity produced by the panels for the length of your contract. They’ll be responsible for all the maintenance and repairs. This can be a great opportunity for anyone who is primarily interested in using renewable energy, rather than maximizing the financial benefits of solar power.

Unfortunately, those three options still leave a lot of people without a path to go solar. For starters, you usually need a credit score above 680 and need to own your own roof, which stymies many renters and condo owners. Even if you do meet these criteria, your roof must be strong enough to support solar panels for the 20+ years of the system’s lifetime. The roof must be large enough to host a significant number of panels. The roof must have southern or western exposure to sunlight without too much shade from nearby trees. The roof cannot be slate. The list of obstacles goes on, and up until recently, about 80% of Americans were precluded from going solar for all these reasons and more.

Community solar has changed that. Community solar is an innovative new solution that enables households to go solar by tapping into an offsite solar garden. These gardens, which are often rows of freestanding solar panels on open fields, are situated in ideal locations to generate electricity that is transmitted to the power grid. Renters, condo owners, and other people that were previously excluded from the market can purchase the electricity from those panels (at a discount compared to normal electricity rates), much like if you were leasing the panels on your roof. The best part is, though, nothing needs to be installed at your house—no panels or wires. There’s no upfront cost, and you’ll save a bit on electricity every single year.

If community solar sounds like the right option for you, or if you want to discuss all these options further, fill out this form and we’ll be in touch soon.

 

Solar Technology Harnesses the Power of the Sun

By Emily Claps, Danny Tobin, and Jonah Bader

Every hour, Earth receives enough energy from the Sun to meet humanity’s entire global energy demand for a year. In 18 days, the sunlight that hits Earth’s surface carries as much energy as all of the coal, oil, and natural gas that remains on the planet. In other words, there is no shortage of solar energy—the challenge is capturing it.

Due to a host of factors, ranging from the Earth’s reflectivity to the limitations of technology, it is unlikely we will ever come close to harnessing all of that energy. Yet the amount of incoming solar radiation is so staggering that we just need to capture a tiny portion of it to bring us well on our way to a carbon-free future.

With advances in solar technology over the last decade, prices have plummeted and people all over the world are tapping into this underutilized power source. But how does the technology work?

Solar panels consist of a set of photovoltaic (PV) cells, which are essentially a sandwich of two oppositely charged slices of a semiconductor (a material whose ability to conduct electricity varies with conditions), such as silicon. An incoming photon (a particle of light) knocks electrons free from the atoms on the negative slice. Since electrons are negatively charged, they are driven to flow towards the positive side. By directing those electrons to flow through a wire, however, we create an electric current that can be used to power any appliance or electronic device.

Basic schematic of a photovoltaic solar panel.

Basic schematic of a photovoltaic solar panel.

As long as the Sun keeps shining, it serves as a virtually unlimited energy source. This is why solar power is considered a form of “renewable energy” or “sustainable energy”. Solar power is also a form of “clean energy” or “green energy” because the panels produce no greenhouse gas emissions, or emissions of any kind, in the process of generating electricity. (The only emissions associated with solar power come during the manufacturing, installation, and disposal phases of the panels’ life cycle.)

The Sun makes life possible for almost every organism on Earth, and with solar power, it’s also our lifeline to a better life and a safer future. Learn more about how you can go solar with Solstice.