Although California far exceeds all other states in solar electric capacity, it’s falling short in efforts to support community solar programs that can make accessing solar more equitable and allow distributed solar systems to better support the electricity grid.

Community solar can describe various business models, but we specifically mean programs that enable individual consumers to receive utility bill credits for generation from a photovoltaic (PV) system that they share with others. Program participants may either contribute to part of the system’s upfront costs or pay a rate that finances their portion of the power produced.

Community solar offers electricity to users who may not be able host PV panels and allows developers to locate solar at places of greatest cost-effectiveness and best benefit to the stability and reliability of the grid.


Read the white paper — Community Solar in California: A Missed Opportunity


In general, dedicated rooftop solar systems provide a good economic proposition for residential and commercial consumers. The downside is these individualized systems disproportionately benefit homeowners and businesses and lead to PV systems sited without regard to grid-level or community needs – preventing solar from reaching its potential technical and societal benefits.

Community solar program

California’s community solar program, named the Enhanced Community Renewables (ECR) program, was created by the state legislature as part of the larger Green Tariff Shared Renewables program in 2013 and implemented in 2015.

ECR program rules allow consumers to enter into agreements directly with third-party, private developers to purchase solar and other clean energy generated by projects with their community. However, the program’s overly complex regulations combined with inflated and fluctuating retail energy pricing have discouraged private developers from partaking with participation so far limited to the state’s major investor-owned utilities.

The ECR must be reworked. Otherwise, community solar will remain a second-tier option for PV development with continuing inequitable access to solar and other renewables and while perpetuating random placement of rooftop solar that stresses grid distribution operations. Although California is behind on community solar deployment, the state can still burnish its image as an energy innovator by developing creative approaches to compensation that incorporate the technical and social value of PV.

Successes in other states

In contrast, state policymakers across the country are realizing the potential benefits of community solar and designing programs to boost participation.

Colorado built a low-income carve-out into its state community solar regulations. Minnesota takes a value-of-solar approach to determining appropriate compensation structures for community solar. Massachusetts offers rate incentives (adders) for power acquired from community solar projects and projects providing other valued benefits, such as serving low-income customers. New York has prioritized community solar projects that are explicitly designed and sited to benefit the grid and/or serve low-income electricity users.

Program needs to be fixed

California has an opportunity to build on the successes in other states. The first step is to retool or replace the existing ECR program, working with stakeholders to design improvements. It should be modified to create an attractive economic proposition for community solar developers and program participants. It should offer a meaningful option for low-income customers and nonprofit organizations to benefit from renewable energy. And community solar systems should be strategically sited to serve both customers and the grid, while providing adequate and sustainable revenues.  A promising development is a proposed decision currently before the California Public Utilities Commission which, if approved, would enhance the likelihood of developing a limited number community solar projects in disadvantaged communities.

Community solar in California can be an important tool to promote social and environmental equity and contribute to the state’s ambitious build out of renewable generating resources to meet our energy and climate action plan goals. The ECR program just needs to be fixed so that we can realize the benefits community solar offers and provide those benefits to customers throughout the state.

Not too long ago, electricity worked as a one-way street—utilities produced energy and people consumed it. Solar energy has changed that model, enabling people who install solar panels on their rooftops to consume the energy generated and sell the rest of it back to utilities. This turns consumers into prosumers—people who both produce and consume energy.

Here are four fast facts about what it means to be a solar prosumer.

1. Prosumers don’t need to produce 100% of the electricity they consume

The solar panels on a homeowner’s rooftop might not produce all of the energy a home needs to function each day. Energy generation also depends on the season. For example, homes consume more energy for cooling in the summer and heating in the winter than they do in the spring or fall. This means that the solar energy being produced doesn’t have to equal the demand at all times; the solar may cover a portion, all, or more than a consumer’s load. This is especially true for people who have smaller rooftops. That’s why solar prosumers still connect to the grid and rely on utilities to balance supply and load just like other electricity consumers.

2. Prosumers don’t sell solar energy to other consumers

When prosumers produce more energy than they can use, the excess is sent back to the grid to be managed by the utility.  However, not all the excess energy is captured back on the grid because the grid was initially built for power to go only one way.   The U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Modernization Initiative is working to change this by enabling power to flow on a two-way superhighway rather than a one-way street. This includes funding the development of new transformer technology that will allow larger volumes of solar-generated energy from rooftop installations scattered across a utility’s territory to be utilized efficiently onto the grid.

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Consumer vs Prosumer: What's the Difference?

3. Businesses can be considered prosumers, too​

Solar panels aren’t just made for homes. Businesses can use rooftop or on-site solar energy arrays to help offset a variety of expenses. Solar can also be used in conjunction with combined heat and power, which is useful for industrial and large commercial facilities. This technology allows businesses to use the heat that would normally be lost in the power generation process to be recovered for use in heating or cooling, taking business prosumer cred to the next level.

4. Prosumers can save money

Switching to solar can help balance a budget, making the prosumer lifestyle a worthwhile choice. In fact, SunShot-funded research from the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center found that in 42 of America’s 50 largest cities, going solar is less expensive than only relying on a utility to generate your electricity. As more financing options become available, solar energy will become even more affordable in cities across the country.

Are you thinking about becoming an energy prosumer with solar? Check out our Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar to learn more.

*Graphics by Sarah Harman | U.S. Department of Energy

A new solar collector is starting a trend when it comes to concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. For the first time ever, “ganged heliostats” could be a viable option for new CSP systems.

Skysun, a startup out of Bay Village, Ohio, developed the new design that could help cut the cost of a CSP system by more than 30%.

Ganged Heliostat Technology

CSP technologies use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat. The mirrors, also known as heliostats, typically require their own base, foundation, and motor.

Skysun’s solar collector groups together heliostats through shared motors and support structures, which has the potential to cut the total installed cost of CSP systems in half. While other ganged heliostat concepts have previously been proposed, none of them have shown to be cost competitive or viable—until now.

Ganged heliostat prototype installed at Sandia National Laboratories' National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

SkySun partnered with Sandia National Laboratories through a $275,000 Small Business Vouchers project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative. Sandia reported that Skysun’s ganged heliostats can achieve an average price point around $80/m2. That’s 33% lower than the lowest average cost for today’s conventional heliostats ($120/m2) and close to the SunShot Initiative’s goal of lowering the cost of solar collectors to $75/m2.

Path to Market Adoption

Skysun’s biggest barrier was showing that the technology is not just comparable to current heliostats in terms of performance, but more affordable. They used a grant from Innovation Fund America to build their first lab-scale prototype, then worked with Sandia to model and optimize the system. Alongside Sandia, Skysun designed custom codes for mirror positioning to reduce shading from other mirrors within the system, making its peak efficiency comparable to those deployed today. So far, modeling on Skysun’s solar collectors show that its mirrors achieve CSP industry accuracy standards with winds up to 15-20 miles per hour.

Skysun founder Jim Clair believes he will be able to leverage the outcomes from Skysun’s collaboration with Sandia in his search for a strategic partnership to prepare this technology for market adoption. Describing Sandia as “the mecca for CSP,” Clair said Sandia’s support in demonstrating the ganged heliostat’s stability, performance, and cost will be instrumental in showing the technology’s viability to potential partners.

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative and Tech-to-Market program within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

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Learn more about Tech-to-Market’s Small Business Vouchers program, which opens the national labs to qualified small businesses by making the contracting process simple, lab practices transparent, and access to the labs' unique facilities practical. 

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If you own a solar energy system, it’s very likely that the SunShot Initiative has impacted at least one of the steps that helped you get there. Since SunShot launched in 2011, the program has funded hundreds of projects at national labs, universities, and private companies that have added clarity, speed, and cost savings to each step of the “going solar” process.

Powered by SunShot Homepage

The Big Decision

Simplifying the “Going-Solar” Process

Deciding to go solar is the first step in the process and often the most challenging one. A lot of variables come into play: Should I make the leap to solar energy? Is my home suitable for solar? Does it make financial sense to go solar? Who should I go with for installation? SunShot awardees are addressing all of these questions.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) uses SunShot funding to research market barriers that prevent solar adoption, fostering competition within the industry to develop a more streamlined process. Awardees such as Sun Number and EnergySage have developed tools that help consumers find personalized information needed to assess the suitability of their homes for solar and to find the best installers. These companies are also driving down solar costs by providing consumers with new tools to help them make informed decisions on how to get started.

Calculating Finances

Just how much can one save by switching to solar? It depends on a complex mix of your home, local laws, and daily energy usage. Algorithms and remote sensing, however, have made it easier to determine your cost savings.

SunShot-funded small businesses use the latest technologies to make this process easier and faster. Aurora Solar developed a remote design tool that creates custom 3D solar system designs, making it easier to determine accurate financing options and potential savings. Another awardee, Genability, created a third-party savings calculator known as Switch, which instantly generates savings estimates that have been found to be more than 99.5% accurate. And, when it comes to obtaining financing to pay for going solar, SunShot awardees are developing solutions to enable loans, master limited partnerships, and new streams of capital for solar finance.

Rooftop Reality

Once a solar installer is selected and financing is obtained, the installation process begins—much more efficient and affordable thanks to early-stage funding from SunShot. Zep Solar’s rooftop mounting equipment shaves $0.28 per watt off of the total installed price thanks to reduced hardware and labor costs. This savings led to their acquisition by SolarCity, one of the country’s largest solar companies. SolarBridge developed a microinverter that can be integrated into solar panels, eliminating the need to set up modules to a single string inverter. Finally, NREL research is used to establish evaluation systems for solar module durability, as well as inspection guidelines, so that industry can offer uniform quality to every customer.

Solar Financing Options

Talking to the Grid

After installation, solar arrays must be connected to the grid. This step is important because utilities need to plan for increases in solar energy on the grid. Since there are many different utility jurisdictions across the country, the process is rarely standardized, and red tape can create lengthy interconnection times.

Enter more SunShot awardees to help simplify the process.

GridUnity, formerly Qado Energy, developed a cloud-connected tool that uses algorithms to determine what impact a solar installation will have on the grid. It identifies which circuit a solar project will join, calculates its hosting capacity, and provides an instant response on whether the circuit can handle more solar. This can speed up the impact study process in some utility territories from 55 days to just 60 minutes. In addition, to minimize potential negative grid impacts of PV systems, several smart inverters are under development that will allow grid operators to better control solar energy’s local impacts on the electric grid.

Reaping the Benefits

Going solar can help save homeowners money on monthly utility bills, but only if the system is operating correctly. Some awardees have tools that allow you to monitor your energy usage to ensure things are running smoothly. Should the time come to sell your home, a study at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory determined buyers are willing to pay a premium of $15,000 for a home with an average-sized, resident-owned solar array. The team is also making home sales easier for real estate agents. They created five standard data fields for solar properties that can be used by the more than 700 multiple listing services around the country to ensure real estate transactions remain secure and efficient.

A Full Solar Circle

Research from Yale University has shown that, if your neighbor notices your new solar panels and you tell them about the cost savings you’re experiencing, the cycle often starts anew as someone else considers going solar. Once a costly process, making the switch to solar is now easier and more affordable thanks to the research and development funded by the SunShot Initiative.

From start to finish, the “going solar” process is powered by SunShot.

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