Equitable Access to the Sun: Together Be More Powerful and Effective

Imagine if you could suffice your home or business energy needs through harnessing the natural sun light without causing a serious dent on your bank account; would you consider adopting solar energy? Money may not always be the sole barrier to going solar. You may encounter other challenges such as not having adequate space to host a system on your own, not being very familiar with the relatively new technology, or being concerned about the system not blending well into your existing community space. Well, worry no more. Community Shared Solar (CSS) makes it possible for you to solar power your home and business – owned or rented space – with minimum effort required from you.

Community Shared Solar enables multiple customers to share the benefits from one solar-electric system.[1] In a CSS program, a participant voluntarily purchases or leases a portion of the shared system or its energy output. In return, the participant receives electricity, renewable energy credit, financial return, or any combination of these benefits that corresponds to the participant’s share of the investment (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Basic Configuration of A CSS Project


(Source: NREL, 2010)

The perception of solar energy being a reserved technology for the wealthy and diehard environmentalists is becoming outdated and irrelevant as the explosive market growth and penetration of solar energy breaks records time and again[2]. Precipitous cost reduction combined with improved regulatory practices and availability of innovative financing mechanisms is making solar more accessible and affordable to people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Global renewable electricity installed capacity grew by 108% from 2000 to 2013 (from 748 GW to 1,560 GW) representing 23% of all electricity generation worldwide (5,095 TWh)[3]. Renewable electricity grew to nearly 15% of total installed capacity and 13% of total electricity generation in the United States in 2013 (171 GW). Solar electricity led all renewable electricity technologies with a cumulative installed PV capacity increasing by nearly 65% (7.3 GW to 12.0 GW). Solar PV accounted for about 63% of U.S. renewable electricity installed in 2013[4].

Despite the impressive solar market growth, historically a large percentage of the U.S. population have not had the necessary means to solar power their homes and businesses. The 2008 National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s study estimated that only 22% – 27% of residential buildings were suitable for hosting a PV system[5]. The remaining 73% – 78% residential buildings may have issues including, but not limited to, structural instability, poor orientation, and shading.  In addition to the constraints with the existing space, more than 100 million U.S. residents or 33% of the total population[6] (see table 1) did not have a roof of their own to host a system in the first place. However, CSS is rewriting the solar story by expanding participatory opportunity to everyone.

Type of Household Households % of U.S. Total Residents % of U.S. Total
Renter-Occupied 43,431,904 35% 104,557,842 33%
Owner-Occupied 79,520,021 65% 208,665,183 67%
Total 122,951,925 100% 313,223,025 100%

(Source: National Multifamily Housing Council, 2014)

With CSS, customers no longer need to have an optimal roof space or own a property to go solar. CSS provides individuals and businesses with the option to purchase or lease a part of a larger solar array (or its energy output) that is hosted at an optimal site with maximum sunlight exposure (e.g., schools, municipal facilities, communal spaces).[7]

CSS also alleviates cost concerns. A varying ownership structure allows participants to co-own or lease a portion of a shared array or its energy output to match their unique situation. Combined purchasing power also facilitates maximum benefits through economies of scale, where a larger system can lead to a lower cost per installed kilowatt (e.g., a bulk discount), and take full advantage of existing tax credits and incentive programs.


Additionally beneficial, as CSS participants can rely on professional renewable energy project developers’ administrative experience. A Community Shared Solar program saves customers time and money by sparing participants from complex project development and implementation – ranging from regulatory compliances to project financing; addressing technical issues to grid connectivity; managing competing interests to system maintenance, to name but a few. Being part of a community shared solar, professional renewable energy project developers working side by side with trusted community organizations to take care the project from its inception to energy generation.

CSS also enables communities to transform brownfields into brightfields – sites for clean energy generation – and to install new value to spaces that are otherwise deemed of little value or even hazardous, e.g., landfills, previously contaminated sites[8] and vacant roof space. Earlier this year, Community Shared Solar Developers broke ground for a 632 kW shared solar array on a brownfield site in Fort Collins, CO[9]. Similarly, in 2014, Rutland, VT transformed a 9.5 acre closed landfill into a source of clean energy for the local community. [10]

Community Shared Solar is already spreading fast and wide across the country. The solar capacity of Community Solar Projects in the U.S. has increased from a total of 10,000 kW in August 2012 to nearly 40,000 kW in September 2013 – a growth of 400% in one year.[11]

Figure 2: CSS Programs Spreading Across The Country


(Source: NREL 2014)

Community Shared Solar, like any program, is not immune to operational challenges or regulatory hurdles. Professional project developers, however, will address any issue that might emerge to optimize the participant’s CSS experience.

If you are interested in participating or starting a CSS program and wanting to know if there are any existing programs in your area, go to page 5 of our CSS Toolkit and visit the websites and maps included there. The toolkit also contains a number of how-to guides and existing CSS examples that will help you navigate around CSS program development and implementation. Should you have any additional questions, complimentary technical assistance is available through the SunShot Solar Outreach Partnership to help you participate in or create your own CSS program.


[1] NREL (2012)1.usa.gov/1Ei8Zy9; MA DOER & Cadmus (2013) 1.usa.gov/1Pv0CVa

[2] SEIA (2014) bit.ly/1R3LdxP

[3] NREL (2014)1.usa.gov/1zfc0kb

[4] GTM Research & SEIA (2014) bit.ly/1G81Rqs

[5] NREL Study (2008)1.usa.gov/1ImAxcf

[6] National Multifamily Housing Council bit.ly/1FTZ869

[7] Solar Outreach Partnership (2015) bit.ly/1ILJAn7

[8] NREL (2013) 1.usa.gov/1JSJDxP

[9] Solar Novus Today (2015) bit.ly/1FSo91A

[10] Rocky Mountain Institute (2014) bit.ly/1r0u1hJ

[11] Konkle (2013) 1.usa.gov/1JungLC