This Community Solar Blueprint includes a high-level overview of the process and benefits of community solar, showcases important tools and online resources, and outlines Key Activities to help guide EECBG Program entities to success. A Blueprint Summary PDF is also available for download (below), which provides a concise summary of the Blueprint Key Activities. DOE plans to make technical assistance available to support all entities interested in community solar, which may include, one-on-one support from national lab or DOE experts, webinars, and peer learning opportunities.
What is Community Solar?
EECBG Program awardees can facilitate the creation of a solar project, or set of projects, that shares its benefits across multiple customers. Community solar projects vary in size, customer type, and business model, and have the unifying characteristics of allowing multiple customers to “subscribe” to receive a portion of the energy generated by a specific solar installation at billing rates associated with that project. Community solar projects can go on rooftops (for example, a condominium or apartment building) or can be larger scale and offsite (such as parking lots, brownfield sites, and landfills). Note, the solar project must be located within the same electric utility territory as its subscribers. State, local, and tribal governments can engage in community solar development in several ways, including hosting a project on government property, helping to spread the word to potential customers, and helping to identify and overcome local barriers to community solar development, including siting and permitting.
Why is Community Solar Valuable?
Justice and Equity: Community solar can provide clean energy access and utility bill savings to renters, businesses, and others who don’t have the option to go solar on their own rooftops. The DOE National Community Solar Partnership has identified five meaningful benefits of equitable community solar. Requests for proposals to community solar developers can also be developed to include preferences for low-to-moderate income (LMI) subscribers, local and women- and minority-owned small businesses.
Community solar can benefit most American businesses and residents, including renters and homeowners who do not have access to a solar-ready roof or the upfront capital to install rooftop solar. Community solar is a great way to lower energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) while supporting local job creation, access to clean energy for low- to moderate-income households, regional resilience, and opportunities for community ownership and wealth-building. Governments can play a powerful role in enabling community solar, including helping with siting, zoning, permitting, inspection, and customer education and engagement.
Community solar projects have the potential to lower energy burdens of low-income residents, create more resilient power grids, and invest in community wealth building opportunities. For communities with high household and business rental rates or portions of the population on fixed incomes, community solar is a good alternative to promoting on-site solar systems because it does not require investment in or ownership of the property.
Who Should Consider This Blueprint Topic?
Governments interested in supporting community solar programs and projects should first understand their regulatory landscape. Currently, 22+ states allow third party-owned community solar, which enables project sponsors to follow established rules and regulations. If you are not located in one of these states, communities with municipal electric, rural cooperative utilities, or tribal utility authorities may have more flexibility to pursue community solar projects than those served by investor-owned utilities. Additionally, communities in 10+ states that allow community choice aggregation have opportunities to pursue community solar projects. Community choice aggregation enables local governments to buy power on behalf of residents, businesses, and city accounts from an alternative power supplier while continuing to receive transmission and distribution service from their existing utility provider.
Who/What Will You Need?
Staff time will be needed to investigate opportunities for community solar projects, determine project roles/responsibilities (including the project lead), interact with various stakeholders, and perform tasks as described in the Key Activities section below. Governments can scale their involvement up or down, and often play a powerful role simply by supporting community solar projects. If your organization is leading the contracting and procurement processes, you will need support for procurement and legal review. Economic Development could be good to engage as well, as a team partner to help evaluate and review proposals and options.
Technical assistance can guide communities towards pursuing best practices and resources for designing and establishing community solar programs.
Utility coordination is important for the development and implementation of community solar projects and programs, including technical (e.g., interconnection processes) and administrative functions (e.g., billing). Community solar projects and their subscribers must be in the same utility territory.
Investment and/or funding for project development and construction to ensure that benefits are realized by all parties. EECBG Program funds can be used to fund community solar projects for initial communitywide planning and assessment (this reduces time, risk, and cost for developers) and for subscriber outreach and recruiting (also reduces time and cost for developers). Some funding could be used for procurement of materials to reduce overall project costs, subject to associated NEPA considerations described below. Other financing sources for project development typically include private investors and banking partners for full construction activities and project costs and are secured directly by the developer, typically before approval for construction and interconnection.
These selected Key Activities are suggestions of important steps a government could take to begin or make progress on their community solar journey. EECBG Program awardees that utilize a blueprint will receive expedited application review from DOE. Applicants must execute at least one of the key activities listed under each selected blueprint but should avoid going beyond the recommended activities. Going beyond these key activities may trigger additional reviews of your EECBG Program project to ensure you’re meeting National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), historic preservation, and/or other federal regulations. While each step is important, they should be seen as a guide. Awardees should determine their own priority activities based on their local context.
All successful community solar projects need proactive engagement with community members, stakeholders, and potential subscribers. Governments can work together with solar developers to provide strong outreach and education across their communities.
- Engage your electric utility early.
- To inform your engagement efforts, confirm regulatory allowance for community solar projects, any applicable rate structures, or program requirements, and who will be the project lead/administrator and responsible for coordinating subscriptions and billing.
Key Resource: General Guidance for Justice40 Implementation, section 6 “Formulating a Stakeholder Engagement Plan”
The government can help identify and evaluate potential sites for community solar projects, including on government-owned rooftops and parking lots, brownfield sites, or privately-owned but under-utilized sites. Solar project developers may also be able to provide a short list of potential sites based on solar power generating potential and approximated development costs that could then be further evaluated.
The information from these assessments can be collaboratively shared with community solar project developers who are interested in local projects and as part of the procurement process. For example, Cook County, Illinois’s Department of Environment and Sustainability identified 5-7 sites for potential community solar projects.
- Cost estimate: $2,000 - $5,000 per site evaluation.
The government can run a Request for Proposals (RFP) process to select qualified community solar developer(s). The government can lead this step or seek out a partner to lead the procurement process as described in the Blueprint 3C: Solarize Campaign example.
- Cost estimate: $25,000-$100,000 for technical support and staff time to manage the procurement process.
- Key Resource: Review the Meaningful Benefits for Equitable Community Solar and incorporate applicable criteria into your RFP process.
Enlisting subscribers to the program will require communications, program promotion, and education about the benefits of participating, as well as the exact steps and terms of participation.
Cost estimates for these activities include:
- Advertising and public education: $10,000 - $75,000
- Website development: $5,000 - $15,000
EECBG Program awardees may expect an expedited review of their applications if focusing on this blueprint’s key activities related to stakeholder engagement, site assessment, and/or communications. Awardees pursuing construction and installation of the community solar arrays, should confirm DOE approval of their plan prior to proceeding, and should consider the following:
- Rooftop projects: EECBG Program funds can be used for the construction of rooftop community solar projects so long as they comply with the state’s historic preservation programmatic agreement (often abbreviated to “PA”) and fall within a NEPA bounded category.
- Ground-mounted projects: Ground-mounted solar projects up to 60kW may receive an expedited review. Using EECBG Program funds to support construction of larger community solar projects (over 60kW) is permitted; however, awardees should expect a longer review and additional forms to complete.
NOTE: Further restrictions are listed on page 39 of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program Formula Grant Application Instructions and in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Historical Preservation Considerations.
Questions? Ask your EECBG point of contact or email us at EECBG@hq.doe.gov.
Next Steps to Get Started
If your organization chooses this Blueprint activity, indicate your interest in Community Solar (or email email@example.com), and we’ll connect you with the DOE National Community Solar Partnership team to walk you through their resources and the available options for technical assistance.
Additional Federal Funds to Leverage and Braid with Your EECBG Program Award
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) created a new tax credit of 40-50% to reduce the costs of community solar projects that directly benefit residents of low-income affordable housing (IRA section 13103) and made it directly available to non-taxable entities like cities and non-profit housing companies (IRA section 13801(d)). Community solar interconnection costs are now also included in the federal tax credit (Called the Investment Tax Credit, ITC).
In addition, through the IRA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund with $27 billion that will be implemented through two grant competitions aimed to mobilize financing and leverage private capital for clean energy and climate projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions with an emphasis on projects that benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. As this funding is deployed, you may be able to pair it with your EECBG Program funds or utilize these sources for future community solar projects.
DOE also has several ongoing programs to support community solar including the National Community Solar Partnership that offers many resources including no-cost technical assistance for community solar project deployment or other community-solar related topics. The DOE’s Community Power Accelerator also connects developers, investors, philanthropists, and community-based organizations to increase access to project funding and get more equitable community solar projects financed and deployed.
- National Community Solar Partnership (DOE):A coalition of community solar stakeholders working to expand access to affordable community solar to every U.S. household and enable subscribers and their communities to realize meaningful benefits.
- Community Power Accelerator (DOE): Connects developers, investors, philanthropists, and community-based organizations to work together to get more equitable community solar projects financed and deployed.
- Municipal Utility Community Solar Workbook (American Public Power Association, funded by DOE):Provides utilities with guidance and information on the processes, materials, and considerations for exploring community solar projects from a public power perspective.
- Solar Power in Your Community (DOE): A guide for local governments on how to increase access to and development of solar PV. Section 6.2 specifically addresses Community Solar.
- Community Solar 101 (NREL): An overview of community solar deployment, including three business model structures and information about how to connect community solar with low-to-moderate income (LMI) customers.
- Shared Renewables | US (EPA): A list and map of states with community solar legislation and additional information about shared renewable resources.
- Sharing the Sun: Community Solar Deployment, Subscription Savings, and Energy Burden Reduction (NREL): A market analysis of community solar across the United States, including the benefits that subscribers receive and the amount of energy burden reduction through Washington DC’s Solar for All program.
- Best Practices Guide for Inclusive Solar Energy Communications (DOE): Resources and examples to inform your engagement – particularly to underserved communities – about solar power. Includes summaries of community programs that won Inclusive Solar Outreach Awards.
- Solar Decision Support and Resources for Local Governments (NREL): Resource training modules aimed to increase the deployment of midscale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Includes modules about screening and evaluating projects, permitting, and financing approaches.