Community solar gardens: a sharing approach to cutting energy costs

It's no secret that Australia's electricity prices are high and getting higher — and that many Australians are turning to solar panels and energy storage to get out from under high power rates. But that has rarely been a practical option for renters and apartment dwellers until recently. Community solar gardens and other renewable energy projects like them offer a solution. In a very real way, community solar gardens are a lot like community vegetable gardens where people can rent a plot or allotment to grow their own food, even if they don't have the space or ability to do it at home. The story below explains how community solar gardens work, but the key takeaway may be that city governments willing to support them are fulfilling part of the smart cities mission of improving liveability for everyone. — Doug Peeples

Community solar energy projects aren't a one-size-fits-all proposition. They can take many forms and may be used to do more than simply provide more affordable energy.

Obviously, the big differences between community solar projects and utility-scale arrays are their size and how they operate. And they're not quite like typical rooftop solar systems either although one solution could be to install a rooftop solar array on a nearby building.

But as an article in the Sydney Morning Herald explained, the key to community solar gardens and similar projects is their shared approach. While the small-scale arrays could in some instances provide power to participants' homes directly, the power also can be sent to the electric grid and then delivered to their homes. People who invest in the community array can cut their electric bill somewhat with the rebates they get from the energy the array provides to the electric grid. But as the Herald noted, an investment of about $1,000 in an array could result in a payback within five to six years at which point an investor would pay little or no more than the ongoing grid connection charges.

There are other options, including peer-to-peer energy trading, and more are likely to become available because many of those options are relatively new — and because shared solar projects can not only provide renewable energy to those who otherwise would not have access to it. They also can be used to make a profit, help ensure community energy security and reduce emissions.

U.S. states also encouraging community solar gardens
The concept also is growing in the U.S. where about 16 states and Washington, D.C. have implemented policies and/or legislation to encourage shared solar programs, and organizations in other states are campaigning for them as well.

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is pitching in too. The laboratory is beta-testing what it refers to as a Community Solar Scenario Tool to help communities, advocates, developers and small municipal utilities analyse project size, cost, location and other project details to evaluate the economic impact of a shared solar project.

Doug Peeples is a writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartcitiesanz on Twitter.