Contributed by Eric Partyka, Standard Solar
To achieve our nation’s clean energy and carbon reduction goals, we will need to deploy much more solar power. That includes projects of all sizes and in all market segments. We need solar on rooftops and parking lots. We need utility-scale solar plants. And we need to step up deployment in a crucial but underserved market segment, community solar.The need for community solar
While still vastly untapped in its potential, community solar has been growing in the U.S.
Over 3.6 GW of community solar projects were operating across the U.S. by late 2021, and in the next five years, deployments are expected to increase by 4.5 GW of capacity. New York State just hit the 1 GW milestone, surpassing top community solar state Minnesota’s 830 MW of operational community solar capacity. The U.S. DOE recently announced an ambitious goal for community solar systems to power the equivalent of 5 million American homes by 2025.
Community solar, because it is situated close to where people live and work, provides a host of benefits that remotely sited solar can’t provide, such as local environmental benefits, jobs that can’t be outsourced, and other economic stimulation for communities. It also mitigates the enormous expense of long-distance transmission lines, which are the fastest-growing component of electricity bills in many parts of the country.
In addition, community solar allows everyone to benefit directly from solar. Because an estimated 50-75% of Americans can’t put solar on their own roof, community solar is vital for extending solar access to all. And many community solar projects pay taxes to the municipalities where they are located, supporting the entire community.Community solar siting challenges
Despite the current and projected growth, though, community solar projects face numerous challenges in the U.S. Among these is the challenge of siting.
Like many individuals, some commercial and municipal entities cannot install solar onsite; they may not own their roof, or the roof may be shaded, need repair, or lack enough space for solar panels. Offsite community solar can be a preferable option for individuals and businesses alike.
But as offsite solar projects have grown in popularity around the country, so has local opposition. Reasons for this opposition include concerns about damaging sensitive environments, ruining views, and changing the character of a region.
While it’s easy to dismiss this opposition as NIMBYism, the concerns can be valid. And they’re often voiced by environmentalists who like the idea of renewable energy but object to specific projects.
We can’t ignore these siting concerns. Fortunately, we have several ways to address them. A good starting place is a recent white paper by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which outlines a framework for siting offsite community solar projects. The framework is built around these pillars:
- Design the solar project to encourage habitat/biodiversity and dual-use.
- Avoid adverse environmental impacts.
- Minimize environmental impacts.
- Mitigate any unavoidable environmental impacts.
Two types of community solar projects fit particularly well within this framework: solar on landfills and solar on farmland.Landfills
Closed landfills provide excellent community solar siting opportunities, making productive use of land that might otherwise lie dormant. Several features make landfills ideal locations for community solar projects:
- The sites have limited potential for other uses.
- They already detract from the local scenery and can’t be said to add to a community’s character in a positive way.
- They’re connected to electric infrastructure and roads and aren’t usually shaded.
- Incentives are available for landfill site assessment, cleanup, and reuse.
- Because many landfills are located in disadvantaged communities, siting solar on landfills promotes environmental justice.
And landfills are located in or near just about every community. In fact, a 2021 RMI report found that the 10,000+ closed and inactive landfills in the U.S. could host approximately 63 GW of solar capacity — enough to power 7.8 million American homes.
Communities around the country have begun to site solar on landfills, with projects in places as diverse as Stafford, Connecticut, Urbana, Illinois, and Houston, Texas. But there’s room for much more. With so many benefits to solar on landfills, every closed landfill in the U.S. should be evaluated to see if a community solar installation is a good fit.Agrivoltaics
Of course, landfills alone won’t provide enough space for all the solar panels we need. But farmland has been emerging as a unique opportunity for dual-use that can benefit crops, livestock, and farmers, in a practice known as agrivoltaics.
A 2021 study by Oregon State University estimated that by using just 1% of American farmland for agrivoltaics, the U.S. could generate 20% of our electricity needs — while also saving water and creating a sustainable food system. The projects would generate more than 100,000 jobs in both installation and operations & maintenance.
Benefits of agrivoltaics include:
- Increasing crop production for crops that do better with the intermittent shade provided by solar panels; adding shade can also decrease water use.
- Increasing the land’s productivity by letting it lie uncultivated for some years so it can regenerate.
- Reversing habitat loss by planting native grasses or pollinator-friendly plants alongside solar panels.
- Reducing energy costs on electricity-intensive farms.
- Compensating farmers for the use of their land, which may allow them to keep their farm.
- Increasing solar panel efficiency; panels installed above crops stay cooler.
The jury is still out on which crops do best when co-located with solar panels. A Maine farm is trying a combination of solar and blueberries. Saffron, a particularly lucrative but low-maintenance crop, is showing great promise as an ideal pairing with solar — with the added benefit of crop diversification. Leafy greens and root crops are also well suited to agrivoltaics. Jack’s Solar Garden in Boulder County, Colorado, is experimenting with 40 types of crops under their solar arrays and 3,000 trees, shrubs, and other pollinator-friendly plants.
When solar panels aren’t a good mix with a crop, they can be sited on unproductive parts of a farm. In some cases, panels are being installed on higher racks to allow for cattle grazing in the shade underneath. A growing number of agrivoltaics projects, like the Checkerspot Community Solar Project near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, support habitat for bees and butterflies, both critical pollinators.
With so many uses and benefits, it’s clear that agrivoltaics is an area with enormous potential. It’s crucial that we maximize this potential, particularly in light of increasing community solar siting challenges. By mitigating these challenges — while benefiting farmers, crops, livestock, and pollinators — agrivoltaics is emerging as a key player in achieving our nation’s clean energy goals.
About the author
Eric Partyka is Director of Business Development for Standard Solar. He has a Master’s degree in Energy & Environmental Policy from the University of Delaware. While there he conducted research for the Delaware State Senate’s Energy Transit Committee and the Maryland Energy Administration.
Past experience includes work at SunEdison as a Sales Analyst specializing in municipal and utility opportunities where he focused on several projects including the City of Santa Fe and Montgomery County Public Schools. In addition, Mr. Partyka is the co-author of a Department of Energy publication titled, “Procuring Solar Energy: A Guide for Federal Facility Decision Makers”. Mr. Partyka was also formerly the sales and marketing manager for solar and energy efficiency initiatives for Carlisle Construction Materials.