Last summer on a reservation in northern Minnesota, students from Leech Lake Tribal College earned their solar installation licenses while they dug, drilled and connected five photovoltaic arrays. The panels shine blue on the plain, reflecting the sky as they generate roughly 235 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to help 100 families pay their energy bills. This is community solar in action.
Projects like this one are going up across the country and helping to diversify access to clean energy. Utility companies generate most U.S. solar power (about 60 percent), with the rest coming from rooftop setups on houses and other buildings. But for those who rent, own less sunny properties, or simply can’t afford an array of their own, community solar projects (or “solar gardens”) are an attractive option.
From the end of 2016 through 2017, the energy generated by such installations more than doubled nationwide, rising from 347 to 734 megawatts. Though they still account for just 1 percent of the solar market, community solar programs are currently working with 228 utilities in 36 states.
“Those people that are lower income also believe in renewable energy. They also believe in being better stewards of the earth,” said Brandy Toft, environmental deputy director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. “They want to do what they can, but they don’t always have the means.”
In a typical community solar arrangement, individuals and groups use a portion of the renewable electricity generated by arrays located nearby (on a church rooftop, a farm field, etc.). The rest of the electricity feeds into the grid, and the utility companies compensate solar garden subscribers with a credit on their energy bills.
So far, 29 states require utility companies to buy energy generated by renewable sources. Several strong community solar programs are emerging in the Midwest, said Samuel Garcia, a fellow of NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy program. Illinois passed an energy law in 2016 establishing statewide community solar programs. Minnesota also has a statewide program, and Missouri regulators have approved the state’s first utility-initiated community solar project.
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