Tuesday, March 21, 2023

How to run your house on clean electricity, no solar panels required

A growing number of programs offer more ways to tap into renewable energy at home

Illustration of a man and woman connecting their houses with electricity from community solar panels and wind farms.
(José L Soto/The Washington Post)


For many Americans, rooftop solar panels just aren’t an option — whether they live in apartment buildings, or their homes are too shaded, or they don’t qualify to lease or finance them. Even homeowners who can have panels may be intimidated by the process of finding the right supplier or the decades-long contract commitment that comes with the equipment.

There are, however, other ways to harness the power of renewable energy at home: programs that allow residents to tap into solar and wind farms instead of relying entirely on traditional utilities, which have long supported fossil fuels.

Though these options — called community solar and community choice aggregation — are steadily growing in popularity, they’re still relatively obscure for the average consumer. When they’re done well, they offer users greener energy at a lower cost than the electricity provided by big utilities. But the power system is complicated, and finding the right program — and understanding exactly what type of electricity you’re buying — requires some research. “It’s hard for most customers to know what’s really meaningful,” says Matthew Freedman, staff attorney at the Utility Reform Network in California.

Community solar allows customers to sign up with a provider that matches their average monthly electricity usage with output from a specific, local solar project. Buying into local projects, say advocates, makes the biggest environmental impact, since it means subscribers are supporting the build-out of renewable electricity infrastructure in their area. Community solar subscribers still get a monthly bill from their utility, but it includes credits for offsetting their energy consumption with solar.

This model is the first option that Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of renewable energy marketplace EnergySage, recommends for people interested in buying greener electricity.

“Community solar, very simply put, allows residential customers and even commercial customers — whether you’re a homeowner, tenant, condo dweller, or whoever you are — to essentially subscribe to a local solar farm,” he explains.

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Community solar is far preferable to signing up for a “green power plan,” according to Aggarwal. In certain states, companies known as “retail energy providers” sell such plans, which offer power in place of the utility (though utility wires still deliver the electricity). Green power plans can be more expensive than legacy utility rates and some, including companies in D.C., Pennsylvania and Ohio, have faced pushback over allegedly deceptive business practices. The energy projects connected to these plans aren’t always local (though, confusingly, some green power providers also offer community solar subscriptions).

Customers can find true community solar through platforms such as EnergySage or the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, and soon through the Department of Energy. “It’s really as simple as signing up for a streaming service and probably even more simple than changing your cellphone provider,” says Jeff Cramer, executive director at the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

Before you subscribe, you should know what to look for. Community solar should come at a discount over the rate you pay for electricity from the utility, since solar is among the cheapest ways to produce power, according to Kiran Bhatraju, founder and CEO at Arcadia, a clean energy platform that manages community solar projects. “It should be a subscription with savings — that’s the whole promise,” Bhatraju says. “It’s the same sort of benefits of rooftop solar, it’s just in a field rather than on your roof.”

A provider should not require a cancellation fee if you choose to leave the subscription (though they may require advance notice), and projects should be relatively close by — within 10 to 15 miles — says Cramer. That proximity ensures you’re supporting projects that decarbonize the grid locally. (If a project doesn’t meet these standards, it might be a green power plan.)

Because the community solar market is relatively nascent, demand in places where subscriptions are available often outpaces supply. D.C. and 22 states have laws allowing community solar programs, but most projects are in just a few states: Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York. (Florida also has a significant number of projects, but most are owned by utility companies, which critics don’t consider true community solar.) That means that when a project goes up, it’s usually subscribed quickly.

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Cramer says he was on a waiting list for more than a year before getting a subscription in Colorado. But new markets are opening: In 2022, California passed a bill to expand community solar, at least six states are considering legislation this year, and the federal Inflation Reduction Act included $7 billion for zero-emission technologies deployed in low-income communities, which could include community solar programs.

Community choice aggregation

Community choice or municipal aggregation allows local jurisdictions to form nonprofit public entities that buy power for their customers in place of legacy utilities. Residents still use the same utility lines, but the sources supplying their electricity — which could include wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower — are decided by the new agency. This model is less widespread than community solar, but it could be another clean energy option if it’s available near you.

Many community choice aggregators (CCAs) advocate for clean energy, but if you go this route, it’s worth noting that each CCA makes its own purchasing decisions and, depending on its priorities, its electricity mix may not be cleaner than the utility it seeks to replace.

Ten states (California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Virginia) allow local governments to form CCAs. In many cases, residents are automatically enrolled in them if their community is a member. But in some states, customers can seek out providers.

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Of course, to gain access to one of these, your local leaders have to buy into the idea first. Take the example of Stockton, Calif., which recently decided to join a community choice aggregator.

Woody Hastings, a program manager with advocacy group the Climate Center, says he started encouraging city officials to consider a CCA in 2016. But it wasn’t until California experienced recent record-breaking wildfire seasons — with utility equipment igniting some blazes — that council member Dan Wright really started to pay attention. “Learning is a process, and it took several discussions, reading what [Hastings] sent me, and going over it to say, ‘okay this makes sense for us,’” he says.

Wright rallied support, and last year, the city of Stockton voted to join a CCA called East Bay Community Energy. Starting next year, the CCA says it will increase the supply of renewable electricity to residents, at lower rates. (More than 11 million customers across the state of California now get their power from CCAs.)

Because CCAs are public agencies, “there’s enhanced transparency and accountability” around their decision-making, says Hastings.

Still, customers should ask about the projects that their CCA counts as renewable electricity, says Freedman, the attorney at the Utility Reform Network. Some utilities and CCAs contract with nearby wind and solar sources. Others buy renewable energy credits from faraway projects, which have much less of an impact than investing in new renewable projects constructed nearby.

“There’s no guarantee that an individual CCA is going to have a superior environmental footprint to the utility,” says Freedman. “The key thing for people to focus on is … how much new infrastructure has the CCA created that generates clean electricity?”

If neither community solar nor a CCA is available near you, there is one more option to try: telling your state lawmakers that you want accessible clean energy. Says Cramer: “The state legislatures are the places where these sorts of programs live and die.”

Emma Foehringer Merchant is a journalist in San Francisco who covers energy and climate.

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