Until now, most of the action in the residential solar market has involved relatively affluent homeowners putting panels on their own roofs. But, going forward, we're likely to see an expansion of the market to other groups, including renters, and more shared or "community solar" projects. A recent report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says such emerging business models could expand the solar market dramatically.
Two former Obama White House staffers are working on a particular variant on the community solar theme. Called the Solstice Initiative, their idea is to fund and install solar systems in underserved communities and then market power subscriptions to local people. The nonprofit aims to fill a gap between free solar programs like Grid Alternatives and commercial community players like Clean Energy Collective and SunShare.
"We really believe that the only way we can make a dent on climate change is by democratizing access," says co-founder Steph Speirs, who managed field operations for the Obama campaign and then worked at the White House National Security Council.
Solstice, which launched at the beginning of last year, plans to set solar systems on unused rooftops directly in communities—say, on top of a church. People will then be able to buy into the system and offset the power on their normal electricity bill. It's now setting up its first project in south-central Massachusetts (Solstice won't say exactly where) with 200 households and hopes to launch it this fall.
"If you put power in a field over here and say 'by the way you're going to get a credit,' that feels like sorcery to people," says Steve Moilanen, Speirs's partner. "We think about how to bring solar into the community and embed it so people feel the strongest connection to it."
Moilanen says commercial community solar projects aren't really open to the whole community as you need a decent credit score to participate. Solstice will allow in anyone as long as they're willing to pay their dues. "We're building this pool of folks and we would love for everyone to continue paying, but, if they don't, we can kick them out," Moilanen says. That should help keep projects solvent.
At the same time, Solstice is also working on an employee perks program whereby an undisclosed media company will give away shares in a solar system. Several companies now offer solar benefits to their staff, though normally by allowing people to get their own panels, not as part of collective arrangements.