Community gardening is taking up a new energetic form across the country. Rather than rows of corn, leaf lettuce and heirloom tomatoes, friends and neighbors are planting solar gardens. The power of the collective solar will is already evidenced by the successes of organizations like One Block Off The Grid (1BOG) and companies like SolarCity that offer group buying discounts. But those installations still involve individual homes with individual solar arrays. Increasingly, homeowners are taking advantage of net metering and feed-in tariff (FIT) laws to communally install solar “gardens” in one location off-site from their homes.
Solar gardens present an alternative for renters, condominium residents and homeowners with shaded or otherwise obstructed rooftops. These solar outcasts represent the latest in creative solar power adoption. Solar gardens are groups of solar panels creating solar energy together but owned by a group of people.
To facilitate this new solar movement, one innovator, Joy Hughes, started the Solar Panel Hosting Company and SolarGardens.org (as explained in a recent ecopolitology blog). The concept involves homeowners installing solar panels on a rooftop nearby. You, the individual, monitor and record the energy production from your specific panels, subtract your home usage and collect a check. It’s the same as if the panels were on your own roof, only with benefit of group buying and cheaper, bulk installation. The ultimate goal is that anyone, no matter their financial status or credit score, can own their own solar panels.
But the community solar garden concept is a bit ahead of its time in many states, most notably those without feed-in tariffs, adequate net metering rules or tax incentives that provide equal opportunity to community solar power. According to Hughes, states like Washington, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts have laws enabling group solar, and Oregon, Indiana, Florida and Ontario, Canada have feed-in tariffs that allow for some monetary reward — even profit.
Yet for community solar gardening to really take off, there is a need for sweeping change at the federal level or for a larger number of states to recognize and promote the concept. Right now there is a bill proposed by Colorado Senator Mark Udall – the SUN Act – that will give equal federal tax breaks to solar panels hosted off-site. SolarGardens.org has organized a campaign in support of the bill.
Similarly, also in the state of Colorado, the Community Solar Gardens Bill is currently making its way through the legislature. It would give homeowners the right to collectively install solar gardens within their own community. And such legislation is key, because even if the feds grant equal tax credits to community solar gardens, if states have rules preventing them from being built in the first place, then the federal law is essentially useless in that state.
The solar garden movement is young but, given the still high (although falling) up-front costs for home solar power, is blossoming fast. Details like business models and legislative hurdles are being created and overcome. As Hughes put it:
“The Solar Gardens movement is a community of communities, sharing knowledge and expertise. Working together, we can bring our power back home, and truly make energy a community decision.” If she and environmentally driven communities get their way, look for more community solar power plants to sprout up. They shouldn’t be hard to spot. Hughes wants them in high-profile locations within communities, thus creating awareness and a real sense of local pride.