How to Get Solar Power Without Putting Panels on Your Roof

Community solar offers clean energy options in many states, and its popularity is growing.

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Solar Power Without Solar Panels

Matt and Amber Christian can’t install solar panels on their townhouse roof. Their homeowner’s association forbids it. Yet today, the Christians are saving money by powering their townhouse with solar power. How did they do it? Matt and Amber learned about community solar.

Drive 20 minutes east on Minnesota Highway 55 from the Christians’ townhouse, and you’ll reach a field full of solar panels. It’s a solar garden­: a field with community solar. The Christians bought 22 of the panels, collecting enough sunlight to power most of their house, and shrink their power bill. They already have plans for the $1,000 they’ll save each year: “Invest, give, and save.”

Your roof probably can’t have solar panels

If you’re like most Americans, you can’t actually install solar on your home. Your roof might be too shady, too old, or made of the wrong material. You might not control your roof, because you rent an apartment. Perhaps you dislike the appearance of the panels or would prefer not to have strangers walking atop your house.

With community solar these issues are no longer problems, because your roof is left untouched. Your house can be free of solar panels, and still get solar power.

Community solar explained

Imagine 3,000 solar panels on a farm. They cover as much land as three football fields, and produce enough power for about 150 houses. That’s a solar garden. One hundred and fifty families, like Matt and Amber, buy 20 panels each to power their homes.

Learn more about America's solar boom

But that electricity doesn’t actually get sent to Matt and Amber’s house. Instead, the local power company purchases the solar power, and feeds it into the electric grid. Matt and Amber get credit on their power bill for the electricity their panels generate each month.

Their townhouse won’t technically run on the same electricity created by their solar panels, but some nearby post office or condominium will. The impact is the same as rooftop solar panels: more electricity will be coming from the sun, and less from coal.

This is your power bill on solar

Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, makes a blunt sales pitch. “Community solar is where you can sign up and pay less for energy.”

Like any smart investment, your share of solar panels will save you more than you spent. There are two main ways to invest in community solar: leasing and buying.

If you lease, you pay for your solar month by month. You’ll get two power bills instead of one, but the new bills will add up to less than your old bill, so you’ll be paying less.

If you purchase your panels, you’ll pay up front, and earn back your investment with a profit over time. That’s what Matt and Amber chose. “I look at it as prepaying for electricity,” says Matt.

Whether you lease or buy, you’ll also get to lock in your electricity price for years, which protects you from ever-rising electricity bills. This is also a risk—if electricity prices were to drop, your locked-in community solar price could lose you money instead of making you money. But don't bet on power prices dropping. Americans’ power bills have been rising an average of 3 percent each year. If this continues, in 25 years you’ll be paying the same price while your neighbors will be paying double.

Plan ahead with solar, save money.

The next big thing

Power not panels. That’s what’s so exciting about community solar. Many people want to save with solar power, but most don’t have the right roof for the panels, like the 100 million Americans who rent.

The solution is to still offer those families solar, but keep their panels on nearby land. As the price of a panel continues to drop, this is a business model that is poised to take off. In the process, it will open up the power of solar to millions of Americans.

“I think you’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg, but you haven’t seen the bulk of the iceberg.”

- David Amster-Olszewski, CEO of SunShare

Matt and Amber’s home state of Minnesota has become a capital of the community solar boom. In 2014 Minnesota had only enough solar gardens to power 2,000 homes. Half a year later they’ve proposed enough projects to power 150,000 homes.

Why in not-so-sunny Minnesota?

It started in 2013. Minnesota lawmakers passed a bill that opened the doors to community solar expansion. Business quickly started planning and building. Elon Musk’s SolarCity alone is investing $200 million.

What about my state?

Solar gardens are being built from Arizona to Wisconsin.

Twenty-two states now have community solar projects. States can pass laws that kick-start the growth of community solar, like Minnesota did, but without new laws the power companies can still build projects. See what’s happening in your state.

How to buy renewable power in your state

This is just the beginning. These states are laying the groundwork that will speed up America’s clean energy revolution. No one can say for certain how big community solar will get, or how fast. But looking at Matt and Amber and Ed, the future looks as bright as the summer sunshine.