When people think of solar power, the first image that tends to come to mind is either a massive solar farm located in a remote desert location, or solar panels installed on top of the roofs of homes and businesses.

While both of these approaches provide customers with clean, renewable energy, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is driving the development of a third technological approach – an approach that supplies the benefits of both utility-scale and individual rooftop solar arrays, while also expanding access to clean energy for underserved communities and low and moderate income households.

RMI believes the so-called “community-scale solar” segment – solar arrays that generate between 0.5 megawatts (MW) and 5 MW per installation and are sited directly within the neighborhoods they serve – sits in an economic sweet spot in the market and represents an opportunity valued at as much as $30 billion. 

Virgin Unite, Solar Energy, RMI

Virgin Unite, Solar Energy, RMI

Subsectors of this segment include both shared solar, in which community members directly purchase capacity or energy, as well as utility-led development of 0.5–5 MW projects on the distribution grid. 

Nearly half of all US households currently can’t access rooftop solar because they rent their home, live in dwellings such as a multiunit apartment buildings or high-rise condos, or have a roof unsuitable for solar.

Community-scale solar combines attractive attributes that utility-scale and rooftop solar installations can’t capture

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory reports that 48 per cent of commercial buildings have roofs too small to host on-site solar of any meaningful size. Utilities have also tried to control the development of the community-scale solar market to protect the size of their customer base as new players enter the market.   

Watch the RMI video below to learn more about the opportunities in community-scale solar

RMI TV - Shine Community Solar

By occupying a middle ground, community-scale solar combines attractive attributes that utility-scale and rooftop solar installations can’t capture. For example, community-scale solar installations can access the economies of scale found in utility-scale solar – making it economically competitive without subsidies – while also providing the benefits of a distributed energy resource, such as the ability to sell excess stored power back to the grid. 

The RMI team is working with communities, utilities, and solar developers to build a more transparent, standardized approach to help expand market access for community-scale solar installations. We’re continually expanding our network to both raise awareness of the benefits of this technology, and simplify the process to help stakeholders determine how community-scale solar can help lower electricity costs and bring more clean energy onto the grid. 

Getty Images

RMI is working directly with electric cooperatives in both Colorado and New Mexico, as well as communities in New York State, to develop community-scale solar installations for local residents. RMI expects these developments will deliver clean, renewable solar power that is at least 30 per cent less expensive than their current electricity costs.

We’re excited to be on the frontlines of the national build-out of this clean, low-cost power source, helping to bring the many benefits of community-scale solar to new neighborhoods across the country. We expect this market segment may experience a compound annual growth rate of 30 per cent over the next 5 years, which is unprecedented for the solar industry.

That figure may increase even further as the industry begins to fully understand the economic opportunity community-scale solar presents. We fully anticipate seeing market disruption in this segment, as investments are made to develop solutions that address the customer base of community-scale solar. In all, 30 GW – equivalent to the output of 60 average-sized coal plants – is up for grabs in a market segment worth billions of dollars.

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