Community solar—sometimes referred to as a solar garden or virtual net metering—is when several households, businesses, or other entities invest together in a solar installation and share the electricity it produces. A typical community solar project ranges from about 200 kilowatts to 2 megawatts (equivalent to 2,000 kilowatts). That’s about a half-acre up to a couple of acres of solar panels. Most such projects are located within or near the communities they serve. Each member buys a “share” of the energy generated. The local utility monitors how much electricity the community solar installation feeds into the grid each month, and subtracts that amount from the members’ utility bills according to the size of their shares. For example, if an installation produces 60 megawatt-hours one month, and has 100 members with equally sized shares, each of their electricity bills for the month will be discounted by 600 kilowatt-hours.
Community solar benefits consumers in many ways. It allows customers who do not own property, who have shaded roofs, or who cannot afford a major home installation to invest in solar energy. It gives customers ownership over their electricity generation. And these mid-sized projects tend to cost less per energy unit than smaller individual solar installations.
Twenty-five states have active community solar projects. In some states, like Colorado, legislation has paved the way for community solar by putting into law how utilities must meter and account for such projects. In states that don’t have existing installations or state laws, such as Wyoming, communities might negotiate directly with their utilities or approach state utility regulators to create a community solar project. For example, the Town of Jackson and its utility, Lower Valley Energy, are investigating a possible community solar installation.
By Stephanie Kessler and Scott Kane
Stephanie Kessler is director of external relations for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. Scott Kane is co-founder and co-owner of Creative Energies, a solar installation company based in Lander, Wyoming.