Can’t Afford Your Own Solar Panels? Borrow the Energy!

One of the biggest obstacles homeowners face when considering the installation of residential solar panels is the enormous upfront cost. Initial installation costs of residential solar panels can run upwards of $20,000, depending on the type of panels installed and the size of the roof. Because of the prohibitive costs, many homeowners are turning to community solar energy to power their homes.

Community solar gardens first began popping up in Colorado, giving homeowners the opportunity to benefit from solar energy without having to go thousands of dollars into debt to do it. Since then, community solar gardens have spread to other states, such as California and Minnesota. Instead of installing solar panels on house roofs and feeding the energy into one house at a time, companies have been installing solar panels outside and sending the energy into the local power grid. Homeowners who subscribe to the solar garden receive credits on their utility bills.

Even without the vast cost difference, community solar gardens make solar energy more accessible. Renters, people with roofs in the shade, and owners of buildings with structural issues are all able to benefit from solar energy in spite of their inability to install residential solar panels.

Michael Monroe, COO of Great Sky Solar – a Massachusetts-based solar installer – urges caution before signing on the dotted line. “Solar farms are a great opportunity we’re excited about, but you have to be careful what company you’re getting the deal through. In some cases, the return on investment could be many years before you really recoup costs. Some deals are vacuuming a lot of financial benefits into their company coffers, whereas others give back more.

The Department of Energy has recently created the SunShot Initiative, directed by Minh Le, to learn more about community solar gardens. The initiative seeks to define community shared solar, identify successful business models, and understand how it will improve accessibility and affordability for homeowners. Community solar gardens are even looking attractive to utility companies, due to better location and larger projects.

“Utility participation is going to be transformational,” Le told UtilityDive.com. “The perceived resistance to solar from utilities is really not there when you talk about aggregating consumers on larger projects to get economies of scale and siting near substations or distribution feeders to reduce interconnection issues.”

While there is still research to be done, it is clear that community solar gardens will soon become pioneers in the field of residential solar power. Even businesses are getting in on the action, with solar gardens powering churches and shops around the country. The Department of Energy estimates that there will be between $6 billion and $12 billion invested in community shared solar within the next five years.

“It’s important to slow the process down, look under the hood, and really see how the deals work,” said Monroe. “Don’t lose out big time for something that feels good and only saves a little, when you might make out big with a company more open to sharing information and benefiting the homeowner more. Making a profit is fine; fleecing a homeowner and not being transparent is not.”

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