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A growing number of programs offer more ways to harness renewable energy at home

Illustration of a man and woman connecting their homes to electricity from community solar panels and wind farms.
(Jose L Soto/The Washington Post)


For many Americans, rooftop solar panels are simply not an option, whether they live in apartment buildings, their homes have too much shade, or they are not eligible to rent or finance them. . Even homeowners who may have panels may be intimidated by the process of finding the right supplier or the decades-long contract commitment that comes with the equipment.

There are, however, other ways to harness the power of renewables at home: programs that allow residents to operate solar and wind farms instead of relying entirely on traditional utilities, which have long supported fossil fuels. .

While these options — called community solar aggregation and community choice — are growing in popularity, they’re still relatively obscure to the average consumer. When done right, they provide users with greener energy at a lower cost than electricity supplied by large utilities. But the power system is complicated, and finding the right program — and understanding exactly what kind of power you’re buying — takes some research. “It’s hard for most clients to know what’s really important,” says Matthew Freedman, attorney for the Utility Reform Network in California.

Community solar power allows customers to sign up with a supplier that matches their average monthly electricity consumption with the output of a specific local solar project. Buying into local projects, proponents say, has the greatest environmental impact because it means subscribers are supporting the construction of renewable electricity infrastructure in their area. Community solar subscribers still receive a monthly bill from their utility, but it includes credits to offset their energy usage with solar power.

This model is the first option that Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of renewable energy marketplace EnergySage, recommends to people interested in buying greener electricity.

“Community solar, in very simple terms, allows residential customers and even commercial customers – whether you are a homeowner, tenant, condominium dweller or whoever you are – to essentially subscribe to a local solar farm,” he explains. he.

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Community solar power is far preferable to signing a “green power plan”, according to Aggarwal. In some states, companies known as “retail power providers” sell such plans, which offer electricity in place of utility (although utility wires still supply electricity). Green power plans can be more expensive than traditional utility rates and some, including companies in DC, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have faced backlash over allegedly deceptive marketing practices. The energy projects linked to these plans are not always local (although, confusingly, some green energy also offer collective solar subscriptions).

Customers can find genuine community solar through platforms such as EnergySage or the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, and soon through the Department of Energy. “It really is as easy as signing up for a streaming service and probably even easier than switching cell phone providers,” says Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

Before subscribing, you should know what to look for. According to Kiran Bhatraju, founder and CEO of Arcadia, a clean energy platform that runs community solar projects, community solar should get a discount from the rate you pay for utility electricity, because solar energy is one of the cheapest ways to generate electricity. “It should be a subscription with savings – that’s the whole promise,” says Bhatraju. “It’s the same kind of benefits as rooftop solar, it’s just in a field rather than on your roof.”

A provider shouldn’t charge cancellation fees if you choose to leave the subscription (although they may require advance notice), and projects should be relatively close — within 10 to 15 miles — says Cramer. This proximity ensures that you support projects that decarbonize the network locally. (If a project does not meet these standards, it may be a green energy plan.)

Because the community solar market is relatively nascent, demand in places where subscriptions are available often exceeds supply. DC and 22 states have laws allowing community solar programs, but most projects are in just a few states: Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York. (Florida also has a significant number of projects, but most are owned by utility companies, which critics don’t consider true community solar.) That means when a project goes up, it’s usually taken up quickly.

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Cramer says he was on a waiting list for over a year before getting a season ticket in Colorado. But new markets are opening up: In 2022, California passed a bill to expand community solar power, at least six states are considering legislation this year, and the federal Inflation Reduction Act called for 7 billion dollars for zero-emissions technologies deployed in low-income communities, which could include community solar programs.

Aggregation of Community Choices

Community choice or municipal aggregation allows local jurisdictions to form not-for-profit public entities that purchase electricity for their customers in place of traditional utilities. Residents still use the same utility lines, but the sources providing their electricity — which could include wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower — are decided by the new agency. This model is less common than community solar, but could be another clean energy option if available near you.

Many Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs) advocate for clean energy, but if you go down this path, it’s worth noting that each CCA makes its own buying decisions and depending on its priorities, its electricity mix may not be more clean than the public service it seeks to replace.

Ten states (California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia) allow local governments to form CCAs. In many cases, residents are automatically registered if their community is a member. But in some states, customers can search for suppliers.

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Of course, to gain access to any of these, your local leaders must first buy into the idea. Take the example of Stockton, California, which recently decided to join a community choice aggregator.

Woody Hastings, a program manager with the climate advocacy group, says he began encouraging city officials to consider a CCA in 2016. But it wasn’t until California experienced wildfire seasons. record forest — with utility equipment that started fires — that council member Dan Wright really started paying attention. “Learning is a process, and it took many discussions, reading what [Hastings] emailed me, and I went through it to say, ‘Okay, that makes sense to us,'” he says.

Wright rallied his support, and last year the town of Stockton voted to join a CCA called East Bay Community Energy. From next year, the CCA says it will increase the supply of renewable electricity to residents, at lower rates. (More than 11 million customers in the state of California are now powered by CCAs.)

Because ACCs are public bodies, “there is increased transparency and accountability” around their decision-making, Hastings says.

Still, customers should ask about projects their CCA considers renewable electricity, says Freedman, the attorney for the Utility Reform Network. Some utilities and CCAs contract with nearby wind and solar sources. Others buy renewable energy credits from distant projects, which have far less impact than investing in new renewable projects built nearby.

“There is no guarantee that an individual CCA will have a greater environmental footprint than the utility,” Freedman says. “The key thing people need to focus on is…how much new infrastructure has CCA created to generate clean electricity?”

If neither community solar nor ACC is available near you, there’s another option to try: tell your state legislators that you want accessible clean energy. Cramer says, “State legislatures are where these types of programs live and die.

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a San Francisco journalist who covers energy and climate.

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