Solar Power, the Community Way

April 3, 2024
TipSheet banner
Sunflowers grow near a solar array at a five-acre community solar farm in Longmont, Colorado. Photo: Department of Energy via Flickr (United States government work).

TipSheet: Solar Power, the Community Way

By Joseph A. Davis

Solar panels on a rooftop are a status symbol in some neighborhoods. Does that shortchange those who can’t install them and still want clean power?

“Community solar” may be the answer, but it’s a mystery to many ratepayers. That’s where environmental journalists come in. The story is very local — and it needs explaining.


With community solar, a company

or group sets up a solar farm and

sells clean power to people over

the wires of a traditional utility.


With community solar, a company or group sets up a solar farm, usually near the customer community, and sells clean power to people over the wires of a traditional utility.

Arrangements differ. Sometimes customers buy a “share” of the solar farm’s output. The operation may be either for-profit or nonprofit. Sometimes utilities are involved or even operate the solar. Not every state has a legal environment conducive to community solar.

Anyway, if it’s the status someone wants, they can often get a yard sign to brag to neighbors about their solar-powered household.


Why it matters

Climate heating has become a global emergency. The main cause is still the burning of fossil fuels, and electric power generation is a big culprit — at least when powered by coal and gas instead of renewables like wind and solar.

But many people, for all kinds of reasons, can’t install solar photovoltaic panels on top of their houses.

They may be renters (even though they still pay the power bills). Their house may lack sunlight because it is shaded. Trees may not only shade the roof, but threaten it (and any panels) with falling branches. Or the roof may be made of materials (e.g., slate or tile) that can’t support panels.

Let’s not forget that the capital costs of panels, as well as the wiring, batteries and other infrastructure, may be unaffordable. The hassles of getting a loan and jumping through bureaucratic hoops on a do-it-yourself solar project are formidable.

And despite what they say, Elon Musk is not installing solar panels for free.

Yes, some companies offer “power purchase agreements” that may reduce capital costs and related headaches but still make money for the company that installs and leases the panels to the customer. Yes, Musk bought the PPA company SolarCity for $2.6 billion and reorganized it into Tesla Energies. Yes, there’s no upfront cost. But there is a 20-year contract.


The backstory

Almost nobody has heard of PURPA — but we have to talk about it. 

Once upon a time, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, and their customers had few choices. The passage in 1978 of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act changed that.

The revolutionary thing that PURPA did was to separate the generation of electric power from the selling of local wire connections to people’s homes and businesses. This created a competitive wholesale market for electric power, encouraging efficiency and alternative power sources.

Today, PURPA’s importance is fading because the wholesale power market it created has become institutionalized and has evolved. And that market is indeed (somewhat, more or less) competitive, though many players are still trying to sabotage that.


Renewable electric power sources

now have entry into the market in

many places. So consumers can ask

their local power distribution utility

to sell them clean power.


The main thing is that renewable electric power sources have entry into the market in many places. So consumers in your community can ask their local power distribution utility to sell them clean power.

They can also, in many places, require utilities to buy at advantageous prices any extra power generated by their rooftop solar panels. That is, where the utilities have not sabotaged the policy.


Story ideas

  • What companies or organizations (if any) offer community solar in your locality? Find them, visit and talk to them. Ask the questions any customer would ask — especially what it costs.
  • Do your state’s laws and regulations support or discourage community solar? Look at both legislation and public utility commission rulings. What about tax incentives (or disincentives) in your state?
  • What are the attitudes and policies of utilities in your area about community solar?
  • Find community solar customers in your area and talk to them about their experience. What costs do they face? What time commitment is required? How reliable is it?
  • Where is the solar farm that feeds your community? Go there. Talk to it either onsite or at the office. What do the solar farm’s neighbors think about it?
  • What “comes with” the community solar program? Does it encourage weatherization, insulation and efficiency? Does it require it?


Reporting resources

[Editor’s Note: For more on solar energy, check TipSheets on local stories about solar panels, and an earlier piece about the impact of Trump-era solar panel tariffs. Also read a two-part Reporter’s Toolbox on a clean electricity “dashboard” and a trove of power plant data. Plus, get the latest EJToday headlines on solar and be sure to visit our Topic on the Beat: Energy page.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: