The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) recently released a report that predicts that mid-sized solar systems (called “Community-Scale Solar”) may become the fastest growing part of the market in the next few years. The report finds that these systems may add as much as 30 gigawatts of capacity across the country in the next three years. For perspective, in 2015 the solar industry installed a total of 7.3 gigawatts in the United States including residential, commercial, and utility-scale.
The study defines Community-Scale Solar as systems between 0.5 megawatts and 5 megawatts. The average number of homes powered by one megawatt of solar in California is 250, so these systems are large compared to your average residential rooftop installation, but small compared to a utility scale solar farm.
Benefits of Community-Scale Solar
Better use of land: Unlike utility-scale projects that often go on pristine land, Community-Scale Solar can be implemented on buildings with large rooftops, in parking lots, or on lots that are unsuitable for other uses. This means better use of land.
Additional jobs and economic activity: Community-Scale Solar also has the potential to create huge economic benefits for local communities. A recent report by the Center for Climate Protection found that if the City of San Jose produces 33 percent of the city’s electricity from local solar resources through their proposed Community Choice Energy program, it would create 2,000 jobs per year over six years and generate $1.2 billion in additional economic activity.
Greater efficiency in transporting power: By locating generation close to where it will be consumed, Community-Scale Solar reduces the need for additional transmission lines (which are expensive) and reduces transmission line loss, the roughly 8% of electricity that is lost when transporting power over long distances.
Models for Community-Scale Solar
RMI’s report notes that this locally generated power could become part of a utility’s portfolio or a Community Choice Energy portfolio, or it could be offered as a subscription service for customers who want solar, but don’t have access to it (renters, for example). The RMI report offers a host of strategies that they believe that can reduce the costs of Community-Scale Solar by 40 percent, making it much more competitive with the cost of utility scale solar.
Community-Scale Solar will not happen by itself. It will require careful planning, financing, and years of managed implementation. Community Choice Energy providers are in a unique position to make it happen and to enrich local communities and protect precious natural resources in the process.