Solar Farms: Harvesting a New Breed of Energy

The idea of shifting home energy use from the typical and increasingly unsustainable fossil fuel sources to renewables, such as solar and wind, has no doubt been a distinctive aspiration for many citizens of the contemporary world. Plenty of complications seem to arise, though, when one thinks of making this shift. Besides the often astronomical expenses of purchasing and installing a complete rooftop solar panel system on your home (costing the average homeowner upwards of $29,000 in total), there are inherent concerns about safety, maintenance, reliability, and aesthetics. If you live in multi-family housing, you may have already dismissed the notion as a pipe dream and buried it in your memories. But what if there was some way to eliminate most, if not all, of these concerns?

The Solar Farm Concept

A community solar farm, also known as a solar garden or simply community solar, is a unique adaptation from the traditional solar power plant in its operation and its ownership. When most people think of solar power, they may envision a neighborhood of high tech, avant-garde residents each with their own sophisticated photovoltaic systems mounted high and proud on their roofs. They may alternatively imagine a large, industrial power facility sprawling with rows of solar panels too abundant to count. Solar farms, on the other hand, are somewhat of a perfect intersection between the two.

Rather than being owned and funded by one private company or public utility, solar farms take an incremental approach to building up a city’s renewable energy infrastructure. They’re typically established by either private companies, public utilities, or non-profit organizations and are open to receive capital from interested residents, often in the form of units of power (i.e. 1 kilowatt of electricity). Therefore, they allow urban residents to reap the benefits of a clean, renewable energy source, without bearing the brunt of the total cost and maintenance of the full installation. Think of it as a subscription to solar power generation on a community scale. What’s more: purchasers of these programs receive a federal tax credit of up to 30% and have potential for receiving net metering credits on their monthly electric bill.

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Suburban homes in the sunny afternoon. Image via Photo Dean.

Benefits of Community Solar

There are currently at least 54 different community solar programs in existence throughout the U.S. A great web tool, created by Shared Renewables HQ, shows you every recorded project throughout the states and provides a profile of information for each one. If you happen to be in an area where a new solar farm is under development or accepting a new round of subscriptions, you’d be happy you signed up. Here’s why:

  • Requires no large up-front costs
  • Eliminates personal labor, maintenance, or upkeep
  • Offsets your monthly utility bill
  • Helps protect against the risk of rising electricity costs
  • Offsets your local carbon footprint
  • Provides a positive return on investment
  • Reduces a city’s reliance on nonrenewable energy
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A 36-acre solar farm in Les Mees, France powers 8,000 family homes. Image via Boris Horvat/AFP, Getty Images.

Case in Point: Orlando Utility Company

As of November 2013, the City of Orlando Utility Company (located in central Florida) has been operating its own community solar farm for local Orlando residents. The program is structured under the public-utility-owned model mentioned earlier, and provides the option of purchasing power output in “blocks” of 1 kilowatt each. With a limit of 15 blocks, residents can be sure they’ve purchased a sufficient amount of power to cover their household consumption while still leaving enough for others to take part.

Technically speaking, residents purchase subscriptions for their chosen power output, with a minimum of 2 years subscription time and a maximum of 25 years. The rate is fixed – it costs $0.13 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of power produced by each block. Although this rate is higher than the standard electrical utility rate for the area, it’s one that cannot change throughout the course of the subscription. Given the current projections of a 5% increase in electrical utility costs in the U.S., this means that any subscription of over 12 years will likely see a break-even point where they begin to pay less than other ratepayers pay for the electricity generated by the standard nonrenewable-dominated energy mix. This model creates a protection against the risk of changing energy prices – something that may very well become more unstable in future years.

The Cooperative Solar Farm

An alternative to the public utility model seen in Orlando is one known as the cooperative solar farm. In this scenario, it’s not the power that’s priced, but the solar panel itself. Resident “investors” can opt to purchase individual solar panels, which will then produce power which is monitored and, at the end of each month, subtracts from your household electricity consumption in the form of renewable energy credits (RECs). As in the case of United Power Energy Cooperative, these credits can produce a return on investment of 3% or more annually.

Regardless of the method of operation, the concept of community solar farms stands out for anyone and everyone with the mind for sustainability and the desire to engage with their community in something that can be both environmentally beneficial and financially practical. Take one step closer to saying good-bye to fossil fuels and hello to a brighter future of clean energy innovations.

Feature Image: Solar panel from up close. Image via Flickr.

About The Author

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Daniel is a senior at Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL) studying Environmental Science and Finance. Specializing in sustainable development, green real estate, and renewable energy. Daniel aspires to become an expert investment advisor and consultant for all things green.