Shared Renewables Hold Big Potential for Communities Left Out of Clean Energy Programs

We're in the midst of a renewables boom in the U.S., but not everyone is benefiting. While incentives such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit has helped grow decentralized rooftop solar systems, they're usually situated in well-off neighborhoods. A large chunk of the population is being left behind — those living in low-to-moderate income households and rentals in urban areas. That's a lot of America.

"Due to one factor or another... about 48 percent of U.S. individuals, on the residential side, are unable to access renewable energy," says Sara Baldwin Auck, director of the Regulatory Program at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a not-for-profit policy group that advocates for clean energy. 

Meanwhile, we're seeing huge growth of large-scale solar and wind installations across the country. While the move to renewables has obvious environmental benefits, these installations are being built by the same investor-owned utilities that control dirty energy production, thereby strengthening their control of the country's energy infrastructure. But even these are failing to reach many people.

"If we want to maximize clean energy to meet demand and address climate change, we need to expand opportunities for everyone to access solar energy, not just those that happen to live in homes with large, unshaded rooftops," says Brad Klein, senior staff attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which is based in Chicago, Illinois, and has offices around the U.S. Klein is working on several shared renewable projects in the Midwest.

There is an alternative. Earlier this year, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, released guidelines for what they believe is a better, more equitable model — shared renewables — that can bring clean energy to more households in the U.S.

Shared renewables is a democratic system, in which a community or neighborhood collectively owns or operates small-scale energy systems. The co-owners do not necessarily have to be neighbors — or even live near each other — depending on the type of system. The potential of shared renewables is massive. With the proper incentives and regulatory frameworks, shared renewables could enable entire communities that have been left out of the existing renewables boom to enjoy the benefits of clean energy.

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council's five principals provide a basic framework for developers, policymakers, and investors across the country looking at expanding shared renewable programs. These are the key points they believe are necessary to ensuring that a shared renewable system is not only equitable, but successful as well. They released these principles — which are presented in a very simple, easy to understand format — to share the knowledge of those who had created successful programs, and allow others to learn from their examples.

"We came up with this bit-sized format for people to clearly see, if you are thinking about shared renewable program, what are the top five things that you really need to be thinking about throughout the process," Baldwin Auck says.

The first principle is to "expand consumer access," followed by "offer tangible economic benefits," "put consumers first," "promote fair market competition," and "complement existing program." They are based on detailed analysis of existing shared renewable programs, and discussions with key stakeholders aimed at figuring out what is necessary for success, both in producing energy and empowering communities. It is, essentially, the learnings of many condensed into a four-page document.

"We hope that we will see even more state, utility, and voluntary programs that adhere to, or at least take into account, these guiding principles in their design," Baldwin Auck says.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center already sees the value of the guidelines. The group is seeking to expand clean energy access through shared renewables programs in states like Minnesota and Illinois. "We are working with regulators across the Midwest to make sure low-income communities have access to solar energy projects," Klein says. "To be successful these projects need to embrace these guidelines set out by IREC."

Shared renewables can — when designed properly — also have other positive side impacts. Because they are locally designed and locally controlled, they can incorporate design features and benefit communities in other ways than just providing cleaner, cheaper electricity.

"In Minnesota, for example, some community solar projects have incorporated native plantings that help pollinators, increase agricultural yield, and help with stormwater management, making communities more affordable, more productive, and more resilient," Klein says.

Unfortunately, as of right now, few states have the right policy framework in place to allow shared renewables to succeed. That is why the Interstate Renewable Energy Council's focus going forward will be pushing for better policies at the state level that allow shared renewables to thrive. The group recently released their first scorecard comparing policies at the state level.

"We'd really like to see more states, policymakers, and regulators pick these up and use them as both inspiration and guidance for any programs they'd like to adopt and implemented," Baldwin Auck says.

With time, though, the organization hopes more states, utilities, and communities can work together to expand opportunities for more Americans to benefit from clean energy. Then, a genuinely inclusive clean energy economy can empower all Americans, not just those with access to financing, or sun-facing rooftops.

"Shared renewables are still an emerging model and market, and that model has tremendous potential to reach a vast number of Americans and provide them with benefits of participating in renewable energy programs," Baldwin Auck says.

Header photo by Asia Chang via Unsplash