While solar panels have been around for more than 60 years, they have remained out of reach for people as a technology to create their own power for the vast majority of that time. However, prices have dropped precipitously, and while Wisconsin is lagging behind other states, the result of those price drops is that more people nationwide are now able to install their own solar panels, and over 45,000 people did in 2014.

However, not everyone who would like to install solar panels can, including people who rent or live in apartments, or homeowners whose roofs are either tilted in the wrong direction or shaded. In fact, depending on which factors you take into account it has been estimated that between 50% and 80% of people aren’t able to participate in the rooftop solar market. Fortunately, the development of community solar installations is opening the door for those people with some added benefits at the same time.

Instead of people each installing their own solar panels, community solar farms (sometimes called “solar gardens”) are larger installations at a single central location. They are normally overseen either by an electrical utility or an independent company, and allow multiple people to either buy panels or invest in a portion of the whole project. The separate location, whether on a large commercial rooftop, over a parking lot, or in a field on the edge of town, allows anyone to take part. It also simplifies issues that can crop up around selling a house with solar installed on the roof, and the fact that it is professionally managed means that individuals don’t have to worry about optimizing the system or doing maintenance work.

Utilities also tend to like community solar more than rooftop installations as they have more control over how they are installed and operated. And when the utility is in charge of the community installations themselves, it is easier for them to see a path toward sharing in the benefits they provide. This means that, unlike the oppositional stance they’ve taken regarding rooftop solar in Wisconsin (for example pushing for rates or policies that make rooftop installations less cost-effective), Wisconsin utilities have been eager to offer community solar options to their customers. In fact, since 2014 when Vernon Electric Cooperative in Westby sold out the first community solar offering in the state in two weeks, there are now a dozen utilities with nearly 5,000 kW either planned or installed in the state. The latest of these, Madison Gas and Electric, had a 500 kW installation approved by the PSC in March.

While there are some disadvantages compared to rooftop solar, including generally longer payback periods, community solar can help by bringing down upfront prices even more than they’ve already dropped when compared to rooftop solar. This happens because both major pieces of solar costs — the costs of the panels and hardware, and the “soft costs” like installation and connecting to the grid — are reduced by the larger installation size. Prices to purchase solar panels in community installations in Wisconsin are around or just below $2 per watt, as compared to a national average of roughly $4 per watt for rooftop solar. At the end of the day, people will have to make their own decisions on what kind of solar project makes sense for them, but its good to see more options opening up in Wisconsin.

Community solar subscriptions can take many forms, and common options in Wisconsin include:

Individual-owned, with solar generation subtracted from purchased kWh on bill

Example: Vernon Electric Co-op Customers buy panels upfront, paying $600 per installed 305 kW panel. Every kWh produced is subtracted from the kWh on their monthly electricity bill.

Up-front subscription with set payment for each kWh of solar generation

Example: Xcel Customers pay an upfront fee covering the full cost of panels and installation on a per-kW basis, but don’t own the panels. Minimum subscription amount is $356 for 200 watts, and the customer gets a bill credit of $0.074/kWh produced (subject to change) for 25 years.

Subscription paid over time with solar generation subtracted from bill

Example: Madison Gas and Electric Customers don’t own the panels, but pay an upfront fee covering only 10% of the cost of installation on a per-kW basis; a minimum of $47.25 for a 250 watt subscription. The rest of the cost is paid over 25 years at a set rate ($0.12/kWh produced, plus $0.008/kwh for transmission, which may change), with every kWh produced subtracted from the electricity portion of their monthly utility bill.

-By Tyson Cook, Director of Science & Research