The landscape of community solar is varied and complex. Regulations for community solar programs and projects differ across states and utility territories, often using different definitions and providing different benefits. Industry leaders believe this contributes to inconsistency in how community solar is communicated to consumers, which can confuse and slow down community solar development.

Despite differing business models and regulations for community solar, standardizing the way we communicate about community solar and its meaningful benefits can build consumer trust and ensure all U.S. households can meaningfully participate in and benefit from the clean energy transition.

In response to stakeholder feedback and in alignment with the U.S. DOE’s Justice40 Priorities, the National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) has developed an education and outreach strategy to support more standardized delivery and communication of the meaningful benefits of community solar.

Community Solar Meaningful Benefits

The five meaningful benefits of community solar: equitable access and consumer protections; meaningful household savings; resilience, storage, and grid benefits; community-led economic development; and solar workforce development.

NCSP has identified five benefits that should be included in community solar programs or projects. Explore these benefits below and read the Community Solar Best Practices Guide: Developing Projects with Meaningful Benefits.

Community solar projects and programs should include consumer protections and be accessible to subscribers, including low- to moderate-income (LMI) households.

The cost of solar energy systems has fallen dramatically over the past decade. As solar electricity has become more affordable, residential solar adoption has increased, with more than 3.3 million solar energy systems currently operating across the United States at the end of 2021. Despite decreases in system costs, many households still lack access to affordable solar electricity. This is especially true for renters, for homeowners who can’t access affordable financing, and for those without suitable roof conditions or adequate sun exposure. While rooftop solar adoption has become more equitable relative to income over time, the Solar Futures Study finds that only 31% of solar adopters included households who earned less than the area median income. In addition, census tracts with majority Black and Hispanic populations exhibit 30% and 69% less rooftop solar adoption respectively, compared to the average census tract.

As of 2022, 100 megawatts alternating current (MWac of community solar capacity dedicated to serving LMI households was online, with more than 200 MWac in project queues. This represents just over 5% of the 5,200 MWac of total installed community solar capacity to date.  As a pilot program of the Justice40 Initiative, NCSP is prioritizing, among other program benefits, the provision of at least 40% of new community solar capacity for LMI households.

Community solar projects and programs should provide guaranteed electricity bill savings or other household savings to residential subscribers.

Adopting community solar can lower household energy costs, especially for those in frontline and disadvantaged communities. Low-income households at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) spend 8.6% of their income on energy costs, which is three times more than typical households. For families at or below 100% of the FPL, the average household spends 16% of income on energy costs. Residents of counties with higher average energy expenditures have higher premature mortality rates, poorer health outcomes, and lower average life expectancy.

In responses to a Request for Information on equitable community solar released in 2021, NCSP received feedback from stakeholders that a minimum 20% reduction in electricity bill costs for community solar subscribers was necessary to have a meaningful impact on household energy expenditures and to provide benefits at parity with rooftop solar. The Inflation Reduction Act and the Environmental Protection Agency Solar for All program both include 20% savings requirements. This 20% bill savings level was used to determine NCSP’s target to generate $1 billion in cumulative electricity bill savings for the equivalent of 5 million households through community solar between 2021 and 2025. This minimum savings is an average, and low-income households may receive greater savings levels, with some programs guaranteeing 50% savings.

Community solar projects and programs can include the capability to deliver power during a grid outage, such as storage and grid secularization capabilities or strengthening grid operations. To increase resiliency, community solar should include storage, microgrids, or other means of delivering power and improving health outcomes during an outage or otherwise strengthening the grid.

A resilient power system, as defined by the DOE Grid Modernization Initiative and the National Academy of Sciences, must be capable of lessening the likelihood of long duration electrical outages occurring over large service areas, limiting the scope and impact of outages when they do occur, and rapidly restoring power after an outage. As extreme weather events become more common, solar and other distributed energy resources can help communities rapidly recover. During extreme weather, the lack of resilient infrastructure to deliver energy can cost human lives.

Community solar projects that are designed with resiliency and reliability in mind can provide reliable and consistent energy for a community in the event of a grid outage or emergency. Community solar can enable communities to utilize solar-plus-storage or microgrids to prevent disruptions in power and to rapidly restore electricity to critical facilities or ‘island’ segments of the distribution network when the grid goes down. Community solar projects that incorporate virtual power plants or other demand response strategies can reduce peak load demand, making the larger grid more resilient. When sited strategically, community solar may also be able to provide technical grid benefits including the ability to improve voltages at the end of the feeder, alleviate congestion, and reduce line losses. Community solar projects may offer supplementary resilience benefits when they are co-located with resilience hubs that provide additional services to support community development and growth. Increasing equitable access to reliable sources of energy before, during, and after extreme events is a priority of the NCSP.

Community solar projects and programs should include pathways for community-led economic development, such as direct project ownership, community benefit agreements, entrepreneurship opportunities, and authentic engagement throughout the development process.

Community ownership allows community members, or organizations that reflect the interests of those members, to have equity ownership rights in a community solar project. Ownership is one method to allow community members to determine how a community solar project is developed and how its benefits are distributed. The Institute for Local Self Reliance found that local ownership of a one megawatt community solar project would provide nearly twice the cash flow to the local community compared to a third party-owned lease model of the same size. This amounts to nearly $5.7 million in net present value over the 25-year project life. Additional benefits of community ownership can include local job creation, increased property values, and the retention of wealth within a community.

Where direct ownership of project assets is not possible or desirable, community solar may provide other wealth-building opportunities for subscribers and their communities through community benefit agreements or other innovative approaches to reinvest the monetary benefits of a community solar project back into the local community.

Community ownership has been identified as one strategy to increase energy democracy, which is one of eight priorities of the DOE’s Justice40 initiative. As a pilot program of the Justice40 Initiative, NCSP is prioritizing inclusion of community ownership and other community wealth building in community solar projects and programs.

Community solar projects and programs should include local job creation, workforce development programs, or otherwise provide pathways to high quality careers in the solar industry.

The grid transformation required to meet the nation’s clean energy goals presents substantial workforce development opportunities. Distributed energy projects like community solar can support more local jobs. Additionally, clean energy jobs often pay above-average wages, even for low-wage workers.

To meet the Biden Administration’s goal to decarbonize the electricity grid by 2035, the solar industry will need to grow its workforce by an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million. Despite this opportunity, most solar companies have difficulty filling workforce vacancies, often due to lack of experience, training, or technical knowledge in the applicant pool. Incorporating local workforce development in community solar projects provides a unique opportunity to foster greater career development in clean energy and contribute to growing local economies. Equitable and effective workforce development initiatives are industry-driven, employee-centric, and support diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Workforce initiatives should support broad occupational training leading to industry-recognized credentials and career-track employment. They should also provide pathways to jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits where workers are properly classified as employees, and have a free and fair choice to join, form, or assist a union.

Equitable Solar Communities of Practice

In November 2023, the Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO) launched the Equitable Solar Communities of Practice program to support the expansion of equitable benefits in solar adoption. Five communities of practice will work to identify resource gaps, support the development and dissemination of best practices and resources, and identify and propose new resources, tools, technical assistance offerings needed to scale equitable solar. SETO selected the following organizations to lead five communities of practice:   

  • Equitable Access and Consumer Protections: Solar United Neighbors  
    This community of practice will focus on topics such as contract terms that support strong consumer protections, availability of financial products to support installation and participation among all households, and inclusive outreach.
  • Meaningful Household Savings: Clean Energy States Alliance  
    This community of practice will focus on topics such as providing guaranteed household savings, wealth building opportunities, and other benefits such as tenant benefits provided to building residents in master-metered buildings beyond those provided prior to a solar facility being placed in service.
  • Resilience, Storage, and Grid Benefits: Clean Energy Group  
    This community of practice will focus on topics such as supporting household- and community-level resilience, grid strengthening and grid-level resilience, and improved health outcomes through reduced or shortened power outages.
  • Community-led Economic Development: Cooperative Energy Futures  
    This community of practice will focus on topics such as including opportunities for community ownership, community benefits agreements, workforce development, entrepreneurship and increased support for local-, small-, minority-, and women-owned businesses, and authentic community engagement.
  • Solar Workforce: Midwest Renewable Energy Association  
    This community of practice will focus on topics related to ensuring that solar jobs are accessible to workers from all backgrounds, provide prevailing wages and benefits, and offer pathways for union membership. 

The Equitable Solar Communities of Practice program is managed by ENERGYWERX in partnership with DOE, a collaboration made possible through an innovative Partnership Intermediary Agreement set up by the DOE's Office of Technology Transitions.   

For more information on this program, please visit the ENERGYWERX Equitable Solar Communities of Practice page. 

Sunny Awards for Equitable Community Solar

The Sunny Awards for Equitable Community Solar (The Sunny Awards) is a $100,000 prize competition that recognizes community solar projects and programs that employ or develop best practices to increase equitable access to the meaningful benefits of community solar for subscribers and their communities. The inaugural Sunny Awards launched in 2022 with a second round in 2023. Learn how to participate