With the latest warnings from the United Nations about the dire progress of climate change, the need to go solar has never been more pressing. Here's how you can do that on any income—and no matter what type of home you live in.
Advertisement

The release of a startling new report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it more apparent than ever that we all have a role to play in addressing the life-threatening changes taking place around the world. As the report outlines, the planet is warming faster than previously thought, climate change is intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible, meaning we're even closer to the devastating impacts of extreme weather such as heatwaves, wildfires, and hurricanes.

One of the most effective and easiest ways to help address climate change in your daily life is to simply transition to solar energy power where you live (and thus shift away from fossil fuel energy). Thanks to the emergence of community solar, it is possible to make this switch no matter what your living situation is—whether you own a home, or live in a multi-unit apartment building, townhouse, or condominium. (The same is true for businesses, as they too are eligible to sign up for community solar programs.)

Community solar is an important eco-friendly lifestyle development that levels the playing field when it comes to creating widespread access to solar and making the adoption of solar power affordable, particularly for low- to middle-income families. This is because community solar requires zero upfront investment on your part, and it also does not require participants to have a roof on which to install panels.

For those not yet familiar with the concept of community solar, here's a breakdown of the key details, including how to get started—and how it can lower monthly utility costs.

What exactly is community solar?

As Energy.gov explains, community solar allows customers to subscribe to a share of a solar project or solar farm, usually in their geographic area. The local solar farm, in turn, generates renewable electricity for the grid and the utility company distributes this electricity to its customers.

Ideally, the solar power generated by the farm offsets most or all of the fossil fuel (or brown power) used by your home or residence. And in exchange for subscribing to the solar farm, community solar customers receive a credit on their monthly electricity bill for the power generated by their share of the community solar program. The credits reduce what you owe your utility company each month.

"The utility recognizes each subscriber as providing clean power to the grid and rewards them by giving them community solar credits on their bill. In many cases, the credits zero out the existing utility bill," says the website SunShare Community Solar.

Where is community solar available?

Community solar is rapidly expanding across the United States, but still has a long way to go. The website EnergySage offers an online solar energy marketplace where consumers can find and compare community solar programs and pricing in the nine states where community solar is most widely available. According to EnergySage, those states include Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. The site recently added Washington D.C. as well.

As of 2020, about a third of states have implemented the enabling policies for community solar—meaning they've passed legislation that created a third-party market for community solar, which requires project developers and utilities to follow certain regulations in order to enroll customers and develop community solar installations.

There is also currently a movement underway to have 30 million homes in the United States operating on solar power within the next five years. More than 300 advocacy organizations, solar businesses, and faith communities have signed on in support of the 30 Million Solar Homes initiative, which aims to reach one in four households with solar and expand access to clean energy to marginalized communities, including low- and moderate-income communities, environmental justice communities, and solar deserts. 

As part of this initiative, which the supporting organizations are calling on Congress to get behind, there would be grants and funding made available to further the expansion of community solar projects.

What's involved in signing up?

The beauty of community solar is that it costs zero to get involved, says Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage. There are no upfront costs to begin participating in community solar.

What's more, you can cancel a community solar subscription at any time without penalty (as opposed to leasing solar panels, which can require a comittment as long as 20 years). Some community solar programs may require 30 to 60 days' notice (at most), but there are no other stipulations that prevent you from making a change if you choose to do so in the future. Using EnergySage's Community Solar Marketplace, customers are able to review such details as cancellation policies, estimated annual savings, the location of the solar project, reviews, and other helpful details in order to make an informed selection. EnergySage also has a call center staffed by advisors who can answer questions.

The third reason Aggarwal is such a passionate advocate for community solar is the cost savings it provides consumers. He says customers typically decrease their monthly utility bills by anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent.

"That's a guaranteed discount. Your savings will never, ever be reduced. It's not a bait and switch," says Aggarwal. "If you sign up for a 10 percent discount, that's what you will always get. It's not like the price is going to increase every year. You lock in that savings. A community solar farm is never going to say, 'I'm going to raise your price.'"

It's also important to understand that most community solar subscribers receive two bills—one from the community solar program for their subscription to the solar farm, and the other from the local utility company for any portion of traditionally generated electricity they've consumed that's not covered by solar-power generation. 

Why now?

Clearly a passionate advocate for the need to shift to solar energy in the face of the increasingly grim realities of climate change, Aggarwal says if you have access to community solar, there's very little reason not to take advantage. There are no downsides.

"There is no up-front cost, and you can walk away any time," he says.

If those benefits aren't enough, there is the reality that solar power generation reduces carbon pollution, and improves air quality.

It's also important to note that there are programs available from some solar farms that provide an even larger discount for low- to middle-income customers, making a switch to solar even more financially beneficial for such households.

"For those folks, the discount can be really meaningful, as much as 20 percent," says Aggarwal.

Still, when it comes to widespread adoption of community solar, some barriers remain. These include people not knowing about community solar or not quite understanding how it works.

The time to educate ourselves about these opportunities, however, is now. Because as that recent IPCC report on climate change makes clear, we are approaching a point of no return. Human-induced climate change is already affecting weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe, according to the report. Scientists are also observing changes across the whole of Earth's climate system; in the atmosphere, in the oceans, ice floes, and on land. And many of these changes are unprecedented, prompting the UN to label this a "code red for humanity."

"The news this past week about climate change could not have been worse," says Aggarwal. "Climate change is upon us, and every year it's doing bigger damage. There's a direct cost to continuing to rely on fossil fuel-generated electricity. And the external cost is one that we're all paying through our health and through increased taxes."