Every homeowner has property that can be used to generate energy. Have a roof? Then you have the perfect place for solar panels.
By the end of 2015, U.S. renewable energy capacity from wind and solar power eclipsed 100,000 megawatts, with another year of historic growth. Despite its many advantages, however, community renewable energy has been a small fraction of this impressive figure.
Below is part one of our Beyond Sharing Report, a report released in April 2016 about how community-owned renewable energy can capture renewables’ economic power. Be sure to come back and read parts two and three, published in the next week.
In this report, we talked about several forms of community renewable energy. Community-owned renewables are owned locally, by members of the community. Shared renewables may or may not be locally owned, but the community can share the output. Group purchasing involves collective action to purchase renewable energy, such as rooftop solar arrays, but the benefits accrue to the individuals who host the solar on their rooftops.
Unlike traditional electricity generation, wind and solar are very compatible with the first criteria—community scale—because both wind and solar power plants are made up of several to several hundred modular power sources (turbines or panels). Distributing power generation from these sources is relatively easy and economical under the current rules for the electricity system, especially in comparison to the severe limitations on collective ownership.
For wind power, the scale of most wind farms makes them expensive, and their remote location makes sharing electricity output with the typical policies nearly impossible. The result is that less than 5% of total installed wind power capacity was part of a community renewable energy project through 2010. Less than 3% of wind power capacity added since then has been community-owned (and none have shared output).
For wind power, the lack of collective ownership in the U.S. may not come as a surprise, but it should. In Denmark, for example, wind turbines were legally required to be owned by electricity consumers. Danish wind projects are typically owned by several to several hundred landowners and farmers in “wind partnerships.” The result is that 20% of Denmark’s power comes from wind, and 85% of that is owned by the residents of Danish communities.
For U.S. solar energy, there has been massive growth in distributed generation, but limited opportunity for collective ownership. Half of the 25,000 MW of solar serves single residential or commercial property owners, with a scant 70 MW of community solar projects through the end of 2015.3 On the one hand, this is an impressive figure, mimicking the 50% of renewable energy capacity in Germany owned by citizens and cooperatives (below). On the other hand, with nearly half of U.S. households and businesses unable to host their own solar panel, continuing growth in citizen ownership will require options for collective ownership or shared benefits.
The relative dearth of U.S. community renewable energy stands in stark contrast to the opportunity for distributed power generation and the need for collective ownership options. The following map shows that nearly every U.S. state could get 25% or more of its electricity from rooftop solar alone, and two-thirds of states could get 33% or more.
But millions of homes and businesses can’t host solar arrays or wind turbines but have an interest in reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and on distant utilities. For example, the following graphic shows that half of U.S. households don’t have access to a sunny rooftop with sufficient space for a solar array. Similarly, about half of businesses lack control of sufficient roof space to meet significant portion of demand.
Additionally, many homes and businesses with or without the physical property to support solar or wind lack the financial wherewithal to make the upfront investment in renewable energy, despite its long-term economic benefits.
Community renewable energy can extend the benefits of the electricity system’s transformation to everyone and building political support for its acceleration. It’s a timely opportunity, with an electricity system in the throes of a major transformation on the very issues of scale and ownership.
Power generation is being distributed and decentralized, and with it the power over the grid itself. After a century of utility energy monopolies in electricity generation, the 21st century is bringing a transition to energy democracy. This report explores the opportunity of energy democracy and community renewable energy by illustrating:
- The benefits of community renewable energy.
- The major barriers to community renewable energy.
- The barrier-busting policies and strategies to unlock its full potential.
- The remarkable examples of community projects that have already overcome the barriers.
- How cities and electric cooperatives represent existing “communities” than can go renewable.
Community owned renewable energy puts the “power” of power into the hands of the community homeowners.