Community Solar Projects Help Low- and Middle-Income Households: How Business Can Lend a Hand

By Tina Casey

Rooftop solar panels and energy storage can unlock economic benefits for households, but until recently the main beneficiaries were in the higher income brackets. A movement is underway to open up these benefits to low- and middle-income households through community-based solar projects. In recent years, nonprofit organizations and government programs have pushed community solar from a fringe concept into a mainstream movement, and businesses can participate as well.

Community solar goes mainstream

Households with solar panels and energy storage can sell excess electricity back to the grid, take advantage of discounted rates, and keep the lights on during emergencies. However, many households are excluded from these benefits because they don’t have access to their own roof, lack financial support or both.

Community solar projects are one way to help households without roof access. They were all but unknown in the U.S. until 2006 when the city of Ellensburg, Washington, launched the first known community solar project in the nation. Rather than having individual ratepayers install their own rooftop solar panels, the Ellensburg project enables ratepayers to subscribe to a nearby solar array.

In the early years, community solar projects served a relatively limited purpose. Solar power was expensive, and subscribers typically paid a premium because they wanted to do something for the environment, not necessarily to save money.

Still, small renewable energy projects can have a collectively big impact on the nation’s overall energy profile. The U.S Department of Energy has been planning for a modernized grid that incorporates more distributed energy resources, like rooftop solar and community solar, and is less reliant on large, centralized power plants. 

Due to Energy Department support and the plummeting cost of solar power, community solar projects have gotten much bigger since 2006, and they are also more holistic in terms of goals.

One recent example is the new Green Energy Justice Cooperative, an initiative launched by the Illinois energy equity organization Blacks in Green.

The project is supported by a network of nonprofits, many of which have a decades-long footprint in local workforce and economic development. The Minnesota nonprofit Cooperative Energy Futures, a member-owned clean energy cooperative, is also a supporter. 

A community solar model for businesses to follow

Businesses are also moving to act in support of large-scale community solar initiatives. Last week Tapestry, the parent company of Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, announced a new community solar partnership with the certified B Corporation Pivot Energy to develop six solar projects in Illinois over the next two years for a total of 33 megawatts.

As with the Blacks in Green project, the new community solar projects are expected to reduce electricity costs for ratepayers in the area.

Tapestry and Pivot also anticipate that the project will provide a model for other businesses to follow. In support of the project, Tapestry will buy the equivalent of 750,000 megawatt-hours of renewable energy credits (RECs) over the next 15 years. Pivot describes these as “impact” RECs aimed at helping underserved communities replace fossil resources with solar power. Businesses participating in the impact REC model also contribute directly to community programs, particularly in the area of workforce development.

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