Not every home or business is suitable a solar electric (often called photovoltaics – PV) installation. Challenges from building orientation (no southern exposure), shading, lack of space, or lack of authority, such as apartments or condominiums, can limit opportunities for installing PV. The National Renewable Energy Lab estimates that only 22%-27% of residential buildings are suitable for hosting a solar electric system. A community energy system, often called solar gardens, can offer an alternative ownership model.
The basic concept is rooted in collective ownership, where a centralized PV array is owned or leased by multiple subscribers. The array is connected to the grid, and utility customers in the area are able to own a portion of system, receiving credit for the production from their PV panels, while avoiding the problems of having an installation their property. A third-party, such as private company, cooperative, non-profit, municipality, or utility, controls and maintains the system on behalf of the subscribers. Operations and maintenance is the responsibility of the third-party, with a small fee assessed to subscribers.
Solar gardens often take advantage of economies of scale by constructing a PV array larger than the 4-10 kW a typical home would need. This can reduce per unit costs of the installation. Often the solar garden is placed at a building with a larger electric consumption, such as a religious building, school, or library, but this is not necessary for the model to work. Maintenance and repair funds are also generally placed in escrow. The production from the panels appears as a credit on an individual customer’s bill; you don’t actually receive your own “electrons!” The local utility may take a “wheeling” fee for moving the electricity, so the payment may be less than is offered under typical net metering arrangements.
Collective ownership of electricity-production is an old concept that is still prevalent across Wyoming and Montana in rural electric cooperatives, so why are there no solar gardens in our states? Although the technology and basic concept are relatively simple, numerous policy and regulatory obstacles hinder the formation of solar gardens. These include:
Please see Solar Gardens II – Planting a Solar Garden in Montana or Wyoming to learn how a solar garden could overcome these obstacles.