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Common misconceptions about community solar

At EnergySage, we get a lot of questions about community solar. And that’s to be expected: community solar is a relatively new energy option for many states, and there’s a lot of misinformation about how it works. Well, we’re here to set the record straight – here are some of the top misconceptions about community solar:

Misconception #1: Community solar is expensive

Back in the early days of community solar, it wasn’t all that uncommon to pay more for energy from a community solar farm than you would otherwise pay your utility company. Fortunately, this is no longer the case – today, most community solar programs allow you to sign up for free, and also provide a discount on the energy you buy from the solar farm (typically ~10%). Thanks to these discounts, most community solar subscribers save 5-10% on annual electricity costs.

Keep in mind that community solar is a very seasonal product: solar panels generate more energy in the summer, so don’t be alarmed if the July bill from your community solar company is higher than your usual summer electricity bill. You’re still buying the energy at a discounted rate, and you can carry over any unused solar credits to future utility bills. Think of it as a pre-payment for your fall or winter electricity bills!

Misconception #2: Community solar and green power – basically the same thing, right?

If you live in a state with a deregulated electricity market, you’ve probably experienced someone knocking on your door asking if you’d like to sign up for a green power plan, or maybe you’ve received a mailing from your town about community choice aggregation. Community solar offers very different (and in many cases, better) benefits than these electricity options.

For one, community solar provides savings on your electricity bills. Conversely, many green power plans charge a price premium for electricity, meaning you could end up paying the provider more money than you would pay your utility company.

What’s more, community solar directly supports local renewable energy development: your subscription helps promote solar growth in your area and provides the buy-in developers need to build additional projects and generate more renewable energy. In comparison, green power plans often source electricity credits from existing, pre-built projects spread across the country. This doesn’t mean signing up for green power is a bad choice – all things considered, purchasing green power still supports renewable energy and helps reduce your carbon footprint. But buying green power doesn’t necessarily support additional renewable energy development, nor does it support local clean energy projects and jobs in the same way that community solar does.

Misconception #3: Solar farms aren’t environmentally friendly

Community solar farms, like the name suggests, require a lot of sunny, uninterrupted space for operation. While it’s true that some companies may need to cut down trees and clear land to build community solar projects, many do not. In fact, plenty of community solar companies place high importance on sustainable land-use practices and use otherwise unusable plots of land to host their solar panels, such as landfills or brownfields. States like Massachusetts and New Jersey even provide additional financial incentives for developers building projects in these areas.

It’s also becoming increasingly common for community solar companies to build their projects for dual land use. This trend, known as agrivoltaics (AGV), comes with many financial and environmental benefits. For one, farmers can receive additional income for leasing out their land to solar developers. For another, when developers mount solar panels far enough above the ground, you can continue to grow crops underneath them. And this is a perfect habitat for many plants; reduced direct sun exposure and cooler temperatures allow the plants to retain more moisture, helping to reduce irrigation needs and costs. In fact, a study comparing AGV systems to traditional growing methods from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that, for a cherry tomato crop, “…water-use efficiency was 65% greater and total fruit production doubled in the agrivoltaic system.”

Farmers who don’t grow crops underneath panels can also choose to have livestock (primarily sheep) graze around the equipment. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement for the owner of the solar project and sheep: the continual grazing helps manage vegetation growth near the solar equipment, generating operations and maintenance savings. Best of all, sheep absolutely love hanging out in the shady area underneath the solar panels on hot summer days!

Lastly, many developers seek to build pollinator-friendly solar farms. This typically involves planting native, shade-tolerant plants that will attract pollinator species like bees underneath the solar panels. By investing in pollinator-friendly solar farms, developers can help improve nearby crop yields and reduce soil erosion.

Misconception #4: To take advantage of community solar, you need to sign a long-term contract

Nope! But we understand where this misunderstanding comes from – five years ago, most community solar agreements were structured like power purchase agreements, meaning you were locked into your program for 20 to 25 years.

The good news is that community solar agreements are much more flexible than they used to be; most companies don’t require a long-term agreement and let you cancel your subscription for free. However, be aware that companies that don’t charge an early termination fee may still require a minimum cancellation notice (typically around 90-120 days). Remember to take a look at any community solar project’s cancellation terms prior to signing up!

Explore local community solar options today

Want to compare community solar options in your area? Check out our Community Solar Marketplace, where you can see a list of open community projects near you and get a quick estimate of potential savings. If there aren’t community solar projects available in your region just yet, sign up to receive updates as new projects go live on the Marketplace.

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