What is a Solar Garden?
By Pivot Energy November 29 2019
We all know that flowers grow in gardens, vegetables grow in gardens, but does electricity grow in gardens? In an increasing number of states and utilities across the country, electrons are the new croup sprouting up. Community solar gardens are in innovative take on the concept of urban farms in cities and neighborhoods. People are coming together to use a common plot of land to increase the bounty of a harvest—but in this case it is not leafy greens; it is green energy.
The Concept: Creating Access with Community
For decades, traditional community gardens allowed urban dwellers access to larger plots of land to grow food. When open space is a hot commodity, it makes sense for people to pool resources to invest and manage a garden to grow food. Solar gardens are the same concept: over 50% of US households do not have access to rooftop solar, either because they rent or reside in buildings without adequate sun exposure. If these individuals could come together on one central space ideal for solar, they could each participate in a solar program and gain access to clean energy.
However, solar gardens are not just for those who are ineligible for solar. Participation in these projects is open to nearly everyone, including individual residents or business owners. Plus, as the market evolves, it is becoming easier and easier to join a community solar garden locally.
How Do Solar Gardens Work?
Solar gardens exist in states where legislation and programs exist for community solar. They also appear in some pockets of the country where smaller utilities and co-ops have launched independent programs for community solar.
Whereas traditional rooftop solar is connected into your home’s main utility service panel, community solar gardens are connected directly into the utility distribution grid. The electricity generated by the solar garden is sent to the existing utility grid, and then distributed in the energy mix to surrounding homes and businesses in the community. The clean energy is measured by a meter at the source as it is sent to the electrical grid. That meter is monitored by the utility to ensure that participants in the garden receive credit for their contribution to the project. Each participant or subscriber to the facility receives a monthly credit on their energy bill that reflects their respective allocation. For instance, if you have subscribed to 8 kW (approximately 25 modules) of the garden, your utility bill would reflect production in that month for 8 kW of the project.
How Do I Participate in a Solar Garden?
In the early years of community solar, participants bought or leased in a specific number of modules or portion of a solar garden, similar to purchasing a condo in a multi-family building. Participants in these early solar gardens saw a return on their initial payment overtime ranging from a few of years to decades, depending on the market. As years passed, this method became less common. Community solar developers saw upfront costs limiting participation in similar ways that rooftop solar deterred solar adoptions. Also, developers had a hard time financing projects that were not fully allocated.
These days, the most common structure for a solar garden is to have participants subscribe to the project, similar to renting an apartment. A household or business subscribes to a partition that roughly matches their annual usage. Rather than an upfront fee to participate, subscribers agree to pay for the electricity generated by their solar garden, usually at a discount to credit they will receive from the utility. For instance, a subscriber may have a $100 bill credit from the utility. They would receive a second invoice from the solar garden operator for $90—a net savings of about 10%. The subscriber model is wildly popular as community solar scales because it allows participants to see the benefits of solar energy without incurring any of the costs.
Is a Solar Garden the Same as a Solar Farm?
Depending on your region of the country, the vernacular around solar can vary. Solar gardens are most commonly and easily associated with community solar or shared solar in markets east of the Mississippi. Solar farms have been shorthand for any offsite solar projects, both community solar and those owned by the utility with no direct subscribers. Some utility programs in New York have branded their shared solar projects as farms rather than gardens, but the point is the same.
Can My Community Form a Solar Garden?
Forming a community solar garden from scratch is a difficult undertaking that almost always requires a professional development company to initiate for the following reasons:
- Legislative and program restrictions: For a solar garden to be built and operate, a state must have passed legislation outlining how and when utilities can credit participants. Once legislation passes, regulators must then pass program rules governing the process. Program rules vary wildly from utility to utility, so it is important to understand the nuances of each locality.
- Land development: In order for a community solar project to be built, a developer must secure land or a large rooftop ideal for solar production. It can take a lot of investment to lease or purchase 5-50 acres of land or roof space to make a community solar garden a reality.
- Utility integration: the location of a community solar garden is not just about sun exposure. Developers must identify locations that can easily be integrated into the current electric grid. Developers employ engineers and communicate with the utility on where and how to tie into the existing infrastructure—in many cases, developers invest millions of dollars to help build out this infrastructure to work with solar.
Although the time and investments are typically left to professionals, there are things that local communities can do to encourage the development of gardens locally. Most easily, start by asking your legislator to support community solar. Even if a program exists, it is important to support the growing market. Some states put artificial caps on programs that hurt access. Also, if you have land or ample roof space available, contact the team at Pivot Energy. Our experts can tell you if the property has the potential to become a solar garden. Finally, if you have a community organization that is looking for a solar garden, contact our SunCentral team to determine where your group can participate. Pivot’s SunCentral team manages solar gardens across the country and is a great resource to locate a local project in development.
Bottom Line: Solar Gardens help Everyone Access Solar
These days, access to electricity is almost as important as access to food. Community solar gardens are a way in which everyone has access to harvest their own clean electricity just as easily as one can harvest their own vegetables in a shared urban garden. As such, these projects will be key in growing a cleaner, more reliable grid for everyone.