Solar Farming and Solar Collectives: Will the Future of Energy Lie Within Communities?

When most people think about solar power, they think of individual panels spanning across the roof of a home or office rather than a field full of rows upon rows of large scale solar panels. However, that perception is rapidly changing as solar farms become more prominent across the country. Solar farms—also referred to as solar collectives or solar gardens—are either community- or utility-owned solar arrays that citizens can utilize either by the purchase of specific solar panels or with a membership into a co-op. Either way, the contributor can tap into an ideal system that has been specifically designed to generate the most amount of energy possible. In recent years, these types of power arrangements have been popping up across the country in growing numbers for many reasons, and analysts predict these communal systems to be the future of energy production.

Disregards the Roof

Our friends at Home Improvement Leads know that not all roofs are created equal, especially when it comes to solar panel compatibility. Some studies even suggest that upward of 75 percent of homes in the United States are not well suited for a photovoltaic (PV) panel to be able to operate optimally. Considering that most neighbourhoods have similar style homes and foliage, it’s usually likely that if one home is not compatible, then the rest of the neighbourhood won’t be either. In these cases, collectively investing in a solar farm will provide an entire community with energy that’s as sustainable as it is affordable.

More Power with Fewer Panels

Even the most strategically placed residential roof still won’t produce close to the amount of power that solar farms can, since any roof-mounted PV panels must remain stationary. When ground-mounted and motorized, solar panels on these collectives are programmed to track the sun’s path across the sky, generating more than double the amount of kilowatts as a traditional residential system. That means that investors in solar collectives have a substantially smaller investment to make in order to garner an equal reduction in their monthly power bill.

Fewer Carbon Emissions

Most people who want to convert their home to solar power do so because they have an interest in protecting the environment, not just their wallet. A key component of that battle is the fight against increasing carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases. A recent study conducted by economists with The Brattle Group found that solar energy generated within a utility-scale configuration produced roughly 50 percent less carbon emissions than a traditional residential PV system. Though solar collectives are not as large an array as a full utility-scale model, environmental benefits are still substantial and well worth the investment.

Appeals to Renters

Americans are simply not meeting their housing needs like they used to. Real estate data giant Zillow found that the average age of first-time homebuyers is now 33 years old, and that most of those people are choosing to rent for at least six years before they buy. When it comes to solar, that’s a large demographic of residents who are unable to tap into the perks of having a solar powered home. Similarly, solar panels aren’t a must-have for renters today, so landlords typically cannot justify the expense of having a PV system installed since they cannot pass on the expense to their tenants. Solar collectives are the perfect solution for those eco-conscious renters that want to tap into a sustainable energy source without having to commit to homeownership in order to do so. Plus, landlords are able to provide that energy option to prospective tenants without any major financial obligation on their part.

Aesthetic Advantages

Let’s face it, solar panels are not the most aesthetically pleasing home renovation, although technological advances are certainly striving to change that perception with the invention of solar shingles. In fact, up until recently many homeowners associations (HOAs) had it written into their bylaws that homes within their communities could not be outfitted with PV. Legislation has been passed to grant protection to homeowners that want to install solar panels, but only in a few dozen states. For homeowners who live in a state where sustainable power sources aren’t protected, community-driven solar collectives are able to meet their needs while still fulfilling the terms of their HOA contract. Some HOAs have even been marketing their connection to solar farms as a perk to choosing their community over others in the area.

Benefits for All Members of the Community

One of the main issues that all green industries face is that they are almost always more expensive their traditional competitors, thereby pricing out the lower income portion of the population. But some legislation across the country is changing that. States such as Colorado, Vermont, and California have laws in place regarding solar farms, and many require that a percentage of their energy production be reserved for low-income residents, helping to level the playing field and make sustainability more accessible for everyone in that community. Likewise, some communities across the country are also choosing to sponsor local nonprofits with portions of their solar array generated energy. This generosity not only dramatically decreases that organizations monthly outlay, but it lets them qualify for certain tax incentives in the process, too.

Repurpose Unusable Land

Unfortunately, our society hasn’t always made the best decisions when it comes to taking care of our planet. Landfills are especially detrimental to the environment because they release hazardous toxic gases into the surrounding air and groundwater, making the area uninhabitable for people and animals alike. Solar farms like Clean Energy Collective’s Colorado Springs array is able to repurpose this marginalized land into an eco-friendly energy park with the capability to produce enough power for upwards of 300 households—and this helps to turn an eyesore into a sustainable spectacle.

There’s no question that solar farms are rapidly changing the landscape of the solar power industry. With estimates predicting that by 2018, their corner of the market will have grown by sevenfold, it’s safe to say that solar collectives are here to stay. Now it’s up to us to find ways to tap into them.

BY Courtni Wisenbaker-Scheel

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