The realities of climate change become starker all the time. As global warming continues its rampage, experts say wildfires will increase, food shortages will become a reality, entire species will go extinct and vast swaths of the world will be uninhabitable.
For consumers, the magnitude of the crisis can be overwhelming. Many people question whether changing their own behaviors can even make a dent. Even those who genuinely want to "go green" often have a hard time knowing where to start. But recent developments have made that first step much easier, particularly the growth of community solar projects.
What is community solar?
At its core, community solar is exactly what the name implies: Solar panel installations (usually grouped together in a "farm") that nearby communities can tap into for their electricity. It doesn't require any setup or installation and doesn't discriminate based on home ownership or the angle of the roof.
Community solar projects are a big step forward from traditional rooftop solar, which not only requires permits and days of construction, but can also be incredibly cost prohibitive. Because of the significant barrier to entry, widespread adoption of solar has been slow: Only 2% of U.S. energy was from solar in 2018.
On top of that, solar capabilities have mostly been unavailable to those in low and middle income brackets. A study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory noted that "adoption of rooftop solar in the United States primarily has been concentrated in higher-income households." This is largely because, up until now, solar has been deployed to single-family, owner-occupied buildings.
The report touts community solar and similar shared options as being key to expanding renewable energy usage, particularly for low- and moderate-income households who often reside in renter-occupied and multi-family buildings. The NREL estimates that 60% of the solar potential for low- and moderate-income households exists in these buildings.
While not yet available across the United States, a number of states have passed laws to enable community solar. Common Energy, one of the leaders of community solar, is currently available in New York, Massachusetts and Maryland and will soon be coming to Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
How does community solar work?
There are several different models for community solar farms. In the case of Common Energy, a developer acquires the land and installs the panels, while Common works directly with the customer to get them connected.
When you sign up with Common, you give it secure access to your utility bill. Once your account is connected to a solar project in your community, you receive clean energy credits on your electricity bill each month, lowering your energy cost and giving you a guaranteed savings of up to 10% off your electricity bill. At the end of each month, Common Energy sends you a statement that shows your original energy cost, your savings with the program, your new, lower invoice, and your environmental impact.
Each month, you pay Common for the cost of your electricity, and then Common pays your utility. Common estimates that households can save from $150 to $400 a year just by switching to community solar for their electricity.
Why solar? Why now?
Climate predictions are dire and show no signs of slowing down. Worst case scenarios have become a baseline for what experts expect. Just last month, hundreds of scientists released a report on biodiversity and ecosystems around the world. The UN report provided "the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization," according to Brad Plumer in the New York Times.
"Unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40% of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species, the report said, do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival."
But, still, scientists say the global community has a few years to course-correct and avoid some of the most devastating projections.
In order to affect change at a global scale, it's true that much of this work must be led by governments, which the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement attempted to codify. Signed by 195 countries, it set a target of keeping average global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius. Individual countries made their own pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to achieve the broader goal.
Although President Trump has since pulled the United States out of the agreement, it doesn't change the fact that lowering emissions is going to require solutions from every corner. Scientists and engineers are experimenting with everything from building better batteries to extracting existing carbon dioxide from the environment.
But consumers also have a big role to play as well. According to the EPA, transportation and electricity are the top two contributors to greenhouse gases in the United States, making up almost 60% of our emissions. There are small ways that consumers can alter their behaviors to lower their emissions in these areas. You could take public transit a few times a week instead of driving. Your next family vacation could be closer to home in order to cut down on airplane miles. Or you could do an inventory of your home technology and consider investing in things like smart power strips, low flow shower heads and dimmer switches -- all of which curb electricity and water usage.
But one of the biggest things you as a consumer can do is tap into solar power. In fact, households that subscribe to Common Energy can prevent anywhere from 6,000-15,000 pounds of carbon emissions each year. This is the equivalent of lowering your gas consumption by 300 to 700 gallons a year or recycling 297 bags of trash instead of sending them to a landfill, according to the EPA.
And those numbers don't even take into account the massive growth that solar is currently experiencing. Renewable energy is projected to be the fastest-growing source of U.S. electricity generation for the next two years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Solar power itself is expected to increase by 10% in 2019 and 17% in 2020. The rapid growth is due to an increased awareness of climate risks but also to the plunging cost of solar -- it's declined 99% in the last four decades. MIT researchers dug into exactly why the cost has dropped so dramatically and listed government policy, improved technology and economies of scale as factors.
All of that to say: There has never been a better time to switch your electricity to solar power. And community solar eliminates the hassle, cost and logistical requirements that have long plagued traditional rooftop solar. Visit Common Energy to see if there's a community solar project in your area. If not, get in touch with your state legislators to encourage them to embrace renewable energy and bring community solar to your state.