How to Go Solar If You Can't Put Panels on Your Roof

An acquaintance recently told me about her experience investigating solar for her home. A solar company told her that in order to go solar, she would have to cut down the trees that shade her house -- an unfortunate trade off. If your house is shaded, your roof is facing the wrong direction, or you’re a renter, you join the many Americans that can’t go solar at home.

What to do?

Thankfully, depending on where you live and your motivations are, there are lots of ways you can support the solar energy transition underway.

Donate to a Revolving Fund for Solar Energy
Revolving loan funds are not a new concept, but applying them to solar is. RE-volv, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, has pioneered a model that allows people to donate to its revolving Solar Seed Fund that finances solar projects for community-serving nonprofits and cooperatives. The idea is simple: Each community saves money on its electric bill while paying back the cost of its solar array -- with interest -- over time. RE-volv reinvests the payments from one project into the next three or more. If you live in Portland, you can also support the City of Portland’s solar revolving fund program called Solar Forward.

Donate Solar to a Community Center of Your Choice
If a nonprofit is interested in going solar mainly to decrease its electricity costs over the long run, their best bet is to buy a system outright. Of course nonprofits are often cash-strapped and already rely on donations from supporters for their ongoing work. Everybody Solar is a nonprofit working to help other nonprofits raise the money they need to purchase their solar energy system and save money for years to come.

Invest Your Money in Solar
A very exciting development for solar is the wave of organizations allowing people to invest money in solar energy projects and get it back, sometimes with a return. Groups in this space include Mosaic, SunFunder, CollectiveSun, VillagePower, Wiser Capital, and a few others. Even SolarCity is now getting into the space. While most of these are for-profit companies, there is also a cooperative working to offer its members a return -- the Energy Solidarity Cooperative.

Subscribe to a Local Solar Project
“Solar gardens,” or shared solar projects, allow people to subscribe to a solar energy project somewhere in or nearby their community. The energy produced by the solar array then gets credited to your electricity bill. The concept is gaining traction and programs are being developed in a number of states including Colorado, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. The Solar Gardens Institute and Clean Energy Collective are two of the groups working in this space. California recently passed a law, SB 43, that will allow utility customers to sign up for shared solar projects, but the details aren’t all worked out yet, so stay tuned.

Community Choice
In California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Ohio, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, there is a policy in place called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). Community Choice allows a city or county to set up an agency that’s in charge of buying electricity for the community. The utility still delivers the power, but through a CCA program, the community gets to pick what type of energy it wants to buy -- a great way to support clean, renewable energy. The real promise of CCAs is that the revenues from the sale of electricity stay within the community and can be deployed to build local clean power, creating cost savings for customers and local jobs. For more information on exciting CCA work happening in California, check out the Local Clean Energy Alliance.

Start Your Own Community Solar Project!
In addition to all these great organizations that make it easy for you to join the rooftop revolution, there’s always the option of setting up your own community solar project. University Park Solar did this in Maryland by forming an LLC to allow community investors to finance a local solar project. In addition, you can do what the Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative did. This group of neighbors in Washington D.C. organized a group purchase of solar to get a big discount. For more resources on do-it-yourself community solar, visit the Community Power Network.

Haven’t Explored Solar at Home yet?
While these are all fabulous initiatives, there are still plenty of solar-ready homes out there and yours could be one of them! If you haven’t checked it out yet, you could save money on your electric bill and protect the environment by going solar with one of the many solar leasing companies. Sungevity, a residential solar leasing company, will even donate $750 to RE-volv’s Solar Seed Fund, and give you a $750 discount, if you sign up through this link: That way, you can go solar and help the community!

When it comes to climate change, we don’t have much time to switch from a fossil fuel-based society to a clean, renewable energy-powered society. In addition to fighting the dirty energy systems in place, we have to rapidly build the clean energy infrastructure we need, and that takes a movement. When I look at all the work going on around the country to build renewable energy in our communities, I see that movement taking shape and it gives me great joy.

If you’re not inspired yet, check out this video of RE-volv’s latest people-powered community solar project:

*Note: I’ve made generalizations here about the organizations mentioned for the sake of simplicity. Please pardon any errors, misrepresentations, or omissions on my part. To find out more about the organizations involved please visit their websites. Images courtesy of RE-volv.