This is the second installment of a three-part series on community owned solar.

Our last blog defined community owned solar and provided information about two of the main benefits of community owned solar. Community owned solar is a way for utility customers to “subscribe” to and receive power from rooftop solar panels that are not located on their property. The main benefits of community solar are local ownership and distributed generation. Now, we dive into how community owned solar works in practice, including who owns the panels and how power is distributed to participants.

Two models for Community Owned Solar

Community owned solar can be subscription-based or ownership-based. 

In subscription-based solar, an entity (other than the utility) owns the panels. The owner of the panels could be a solar developer or a Special Purpose Entity (SPE). A SPE is a for-profit company that is created specifically for the purpose of financing a solar installation. Once the solar developer or SPE purchases and builds the solar arrays, community members can subscribe and receive some of their power from the array. 

In ownership-based solar, community members themselves purchase and own a portion of the solar array. These individuals then receive all of the energy and financial benefits of the solar as if they had purchased an entire array for their own rooftop. 

Distributing the benefits

The people who receive the energy and financial benefits of community solar panels are not necessarily living on the property where the panels are sited. This means that oftentimes, it is unlikely that the actual power generated by the panels is “sent” to the subscribers/owners of the panels – electricity cannot be controlled or directed in that way. To overcome this barrier, the utility must create a mechanism for assigning the power created by the panels to the energy bills of the people who own or subscribe to the panels.

In its recent Clean Energy Your Way proposal, Idaho Power developed a way for individuals to subscribe to an off-site renewable resource. A community owned solar program could utilize a similar mechanism. 

A grassroots process

Community owned solar has been tried in many states, and not all programs have been successful. While there are a few different reasons that these programs faced challenges, a common barrier comes before these solar arrays are even put into place. Many programs struggle to generate enough interest from potential participants in the discussion phase, which stalls action. Clear communication on community owned solar and the benefits it can bring to communities is vital in seeing more projects in Idaho.

The best way to stimulate more interest in community owned solar programs is to involve the potential participants in every stage – from initial discussions, to planning, to execution. Since community owned solar is about giving control over energy production back to communities, program developers must ask community members what program structure and features work best for them. 

Community owned solar in Idaho

Community ownership of renewable energy generation presents many economic and environmental benefits to local communities. It also gives people more control over where their power comes from, what their power sources are, and where their money goes. This ensures profits from electric generation are reinvested in the community rather than profiting wealthy, out-of-state investors.

Community-owned solar is different from the solar subscription model currently proposed by Idaho Power. Idaho Power’s program will likely result in a few large-scale projects located far away from most customers –  taking those economic benefits with them. Help us tell Idaho Power that it should work with community groups to develop a community owned solar program. Sign our petition here and submit a comment to Idaho Power. 

Learn more about community owned solar and stay tuned for the next and final installment in this blog series, which will describe how community solar benefits low income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities. You can also register for our May 10 webinar on community owned solar.