At first blush, residential solar seems like such an elegant solution to our energy needs: we have plenty of sunlight, after all. But like any major home upgrade, solar panels are a huge investment—a several-thousand-dollar premium that can’t be easily transferred to another home in case of a move, and can’t be leveraged by those who rent. And the truth is, the face of American home ownership is changing. The New York Times reported in 2015 that rentals had grown by a meteoric 770,000 units every year since 2004. Meanwhile, relocation is also on the rise—Atlas Van Lines’s annual survey of American firms showed that in 2014, 49 percent had increased relocations throughout their operations.
Previously, the biggest impediment to residential solar was technology. Conversion efficiency rates on solar cells needed to be advanced so that panels would be worth their average $10,000 price tag. But now, with technological improvements under way, solar power is turning to respond to the shifting needs of residents. Enter renewable energy collectives: community- or utility-owned solar farms that can be joined by individual residents, either by purchasing and installing an panel on-site or by buying into the coop via membership fees—in exchange for reduced rates on energy bills.
Weighing the pros and cons of solar farms
Although they’ve earned a bad rap recently for their impact on migrating birds, when it comes to energy production, solar farms still have an edge on individual residential panels. That’s because unlike stationary panels, ground-mounted arrays can be motorized, tilting to track the sun’s movement throughout the day, and thus optimizing production. This difference translates to kwh: utility-scale solar farms run circles around residential units, producing more than twice as much energy as the output of every home installation combined.
When managed as a collective, farms hold other advantages for stakeholders: for one thing, since panels are installed off-site, there are obvious aesthetic benefits for those who don’t like the look of solar panels. And they allow renters to reap the advantages of a solar installation without relying on their landlord. Power generated at the collective is translated into savings on renters’ utility bills, rather than metered against their usage, which means where the buyer goes, the discount can presumably follow. Also, since a reported 75 percent of roofs are not suitable for solar—either due to shade or their incline—this provides access for those homeowners as well. In addition to reaching previously untapped segments of the market, solar collectives are a financial boon for their members—representing an estimated 25 to 30 percent utility savings for those who join.
But there are disadvantages. Besides their effect on unwitting fowl, the farms bring up beautification concerns for the conservationally-inclined. Last year, the UK’s Environment Secretary was widely reported as having remarked that rural solar farms “make the heart sink”—she, and others like her, believe that solar arrays are a blemish on the local landscape and damage previously untouched rural areas.
Clean Energy Collective: a shift in utility pricing models
Conservationist alarm aside, solar collectives are charging forward at a previously unprecedented rate. By 2018, farms may hold seven times the market share they currently capture. Much of this growth is due to the expansion of Clean Energy Collective, a Colorado-based group that now operates facilities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, and Kansas, as well—in addition to several projects in the Northeast and one in Canada.
Under CEC’s payment structure, membership requires a purchase of one or more panels to be positioned on one of their sites, with financing available for those who need it. Once installed, rather than metering the energy produced by an individual panel and applying it directly to the owner’s bill, collectives distribute savings to members pro rata, based off the sum total generation of the project.
But sites like this require a rethinking of utility pricing. CEC’s model for solar collectives involves a partnership with local utilities and housing providers, relying on an agreed-upon rate for energy rather than net-metering, the pricing strategy generally applied to individual residential solar installations today. The collective says it does not set up shop in an area where local utilities are not amenable to this, but the expansion of the net metering system is already opposed by many utility companies, so working within this kind of payment structure should prove relatively painless for both parties. With renewable platforms evolving rapidly, creative solutions for residential pricing are on the rise, and partnerships formed between utilities and solar providers will be part of that growth. For utilities, as well as residents, solar energy may become mostly a group effort.
About the Author
Bryn Huntpalmer is a mother of two young children living in Austin, Texas where she currently works as an Editor for Modernize. In addition to regularly contributing to Home Remodeling and Design websites around the web, her writing can be found on Lifehacker and About.com.