Businesses, Schools, and Municipalities Benefit from Community Solar

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Originally published on Clean Energy Collective

Operating a business, running a school and performing municipal services can require massive amounts of energy. As the cost of electricity increases, more commercial entities are seeking tactics to lower their bills. Solar energy is an attractive option, as it not only reduces electric bills but also provides a financial payback over time.

However, not every rooftop on a high school, law firm or city building is equipped to host a solar electric system. Thanks to advances in the rapidly-growing solar industry, there is a way for commercial and nonprofit customers to go solar without installing photovoltaic (PV) panels on their roof or property—with community solar.

What Is Community Solar?

Community solar allows businesses and organizations to harness solar energy through a centralized facility that is built within their community. Participants can buy or lease PV panels, or subscribe to a portion of the clean power generated. The same concept as a community garden, these shared solar projects enable subscribers to harvest the sun’s energy and enjoy the consequent financial and environmental benefits.

Options and Flexibility

Scalable by design, community solar projects enable subscribers to select the option that satisfies their electricity needs. This may be purchasing a single community solar panel or subscribing to enough clean energy to completely offset their building’s electric usage.

Chris Myers owns enLIGHTen, a lighting design boutique in Telluride, Colo. Unable to install solar on the rooftop of his business property, Myers purchased four solar panels (.92 kW) in a community solar array that serves members of San Miguel Power Association. “The flexibility to buy only the number of solar panels that fit my budget allowed me to get in and get started, without having to make an all-or-nothing decision,” Myers said.

If a business relocates, many community solar programs allow participants to transfer their subscription to a new meter within the same county, utility territory, or a specified number of miles. Subscriptions and solar panels may also be sold if a commercial customer moves from the area served by the community solar facility.

If You Rent Commercial Property

Because many business owners lease commercial space, rooftop solar is rarely feasible. Dedicated to sustainability, Amadeus Consulting Co-founder John Basso wanted to incorporate solar energy—but the building landlord rejected an on-site installation on the Colorado property. “Unfortunately, this is the case with many [commercial] landlords in Boulder and across the U.S.,” Basso said. “They aren’t incentivized to make green upgrades to buildings because ultimately, the tenants are financially responsible for all of the utilities.”

Making a Difference Without Compromising Financial Goals

A small business owner, Myers acknowledges that many people like himself vow to make sustainable life decisions—but the talk simply isn’t enough. “With these kinds of options today, all of us can take steps to make a difference without compromising our financial goals,” he said. “I call it ‘living intelligently’—making choices by considering the social and environmental implications.”

Intelligent living through community solar makes sense for business owners, city governments and educational institutions, as they’re not required to understand all the complexities of implementing a solar project. By working with a third-party solar developer, commercial customers can rely on the expertise of project managers to design, install, operate, and maintain the solar array for peak performance. In general, professional community solar developers will handle all the local permitting and approvals, while taking advantage of available rebates, taThe Clean Energy Collective looks at how community solar can benefit communities by providing residential and commercial customers with solar, even if they can’t put it on their roofs.x credits and other incentives to maximize the financial payback for participants.

Alternatively, an organization may choose to develop its own community solar project by utilizing the tools and resources provided by the National Community Solar Platform.

Capital Investment, Greater Profits

Alpine Bank, an employee-owned bank with 37 branches throughout Colorado, opted to work with a third-party community solar developer. At the end of 2014, the financial institution had purchased more than 1,000 solar panels in five different community solar arrays. Each branch that participates in community solar receives electric bill credits for that individual office.

“Reducing our utility bill translates into greater profits for the bank,” said David Miller, Vice President of Alpine Bank. “Whenever you can do the right thing and make money, that’s a much more powerful driver. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”