4 Ways Community Solar Helps Urban and Rural Communities

General By Nelnet Renewable Energy June 21, 2022

Whether a community solar farm or garden is located on city rooftops or in rural fields, the people and businesses that subscribe to it will support clean energy that goes to their local power grid – reducing greenhouse gases along with their monthly energy costs. Those benefits are the same wherever you live.

Let’s take a look at different considerations for how community solar works in urban and rural areas – and some different benefits community solar delivers in each.

How Does Community Solar Help Urban Areas?

Urban areas offer unused rooftop space – and sometimes unusable land – that can be used to generate solar power at less expense for local government, schools, nonprofits, businesses, and residents at all income levels. Let’s explore four key benefits community solar provides to urban areas.

  1. Saving municipal money and stimulating the local economy. Cities can enter into a power purchase agreement with a developer, trading their land and rooftop space to lock in on a lower-cost source of clean energy. With this long-term agreement, the solar developer owns and maintains the solar system and sells electricity to the city at a discount.

    Solar development often brings local, well-paying jobs and training opportunities, further stimulating the economy. In 2016, the Philadelphia Energy Authority launched a $1 billion campaign to invest in clean energy that’s expected to create more than 10,000 jobs for local residents and save $200 million for the local economy in 10 years.1

  2. Expanding access to clean energy and its cost savings for those most in need. In cities where many people rent or are unable to afford solar panel installation at their home or business, community solar offers a way for people at any income level to access clean energy and reduce their energy costs. At least 14 states include low-income provisions in their community solar programs, using various strategies to incentivize low-income participation.2

    With the lower cost of solar energy, municipalities with community solar have more budget available to assist residents through a variety of vital programs.

  3. Helping to create local resilience. Floods, fires, and mudslides can create widespread power outages in cities – which sometimes lead these cities to partner with a renewable energy partner to provide backup energy and storage to mitigate future power outages and impacts.

    For example, Santa Barbara County, California experienced wildfires in 2017 and flooding and mudslides in 2018 that led to devastating power outages. Several local cities identified opportunities for distributed renewable electricity generation with a microgrid and storage to help prevent similar negative impacts in the future.3

  4. Demonstrating government’s commitment to climate action. More cities are proving their dedication to sustainability by committing to net zero goals. Local community solar projects have a solid impact on reducing community-wide greenhouse gas emissions – while producing other far-reaching community benefits that align with key goals.By adopting community solar, a city: 1) sends a message about its commitment to the environment; 2) provides an example to its citizens about the importance of using renewable energy; and 3) smartly leverages limited resources to maximize support of its citizens.

How Does Community Solar Help Rural Areas?

There may be more space available for large solar farms in rural than urban areas, but there’s more to it than just space. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), community solar generally occupies leased land and is easier to return to its original state than many other forms of development.4 Let’s see how solar farms positively impact rural areas.

  1. Creating new income for farmers. Leasing a portion of their property for solar development can provide a much-needed stabilizing source of income for farmers. With one common arrangement, farmers can lease a portion of their property for the life of the project – usually up to 30 years. If a solar farm is built and becomes operational, the solar company pays the landowner for use of the property on which the solar array is located. Plus, the farmer can also become a subscriber to the solar project, receiving additional savings on their electric bill, which will vary by state and program.5

    For case studies and more detail on how farmers are impacted by community solar, see a 2020 report by SEIA called How Community Solar Supports American Farmers.

  2. Providing access to clean, affordable energy for those who most need it. Disadvantaged rural residents who most need the cost savings of solar energy are often the least able to receive it, due to a lack of homeownership or resources to pay for solar panel installation. Residents who live on farms with unstable income, in rural manufactured home parks, other low income housing, or on tribal lands where many indigenous people may live below the Federal poverty level often lack stable access to energy. Community solar offers access to reliable, clean energy and its much-needed cost savings.

    For example, the Cannon Ball Community Solar Farm in North Dakota will save the Sioux Nation community an estimated $7,000 to $10,000 annually in energy costs. The savings generated allowed the tribe to build a community center and gym, and to establish a scholarship program.6

  3. Improving local economies and helping with climate goals. In addition to providing the farmer with stable income, community solar sometimes help all local residents by lowering local taxes.7 As in cities, local solar farms or gardens also bring new well-paying jobs and training opportunities to stimulate the community. Solar farms also help states and rural towns hit their clean energy and climate goals without disrupting agricultural production.

  4. Delivering additional environmental and land use benefits. When feasibility studies are done, community solar farms can make great use of otherwise untillable land, such as landfills – generating clean energy from what were previously unusable sites.8 Community solar in rural areas also delivers pollution-free energy and helps protect farm land from the environmental hazards of fossil fuel energy. Agricultural areas are also surprisingly high producers of greenhouse gases9 – so community solar farms can help counteract these effects. But there are also environmental benefits when solar arrays create a habitat for pollinators such as bees and birds, or when sheep are brought in to help maintain vegetation on project sites.

    Growing in popularity in the western United States and in developing countries, agrivoltaics is the simultaneous use of land for solar power generation and agriculture. This involves installing solar arrays over certain crops that can benefit from the shade from the panels, such as root vegetables and leafy greens.10

Wherever you live, one thing is clear: Community solar makes it easy for residents and the larger community to access the environmental and cost savings benefits of solar – and it delivers other benefits, too. See if there’s a solar farm near you, and sign up today.

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