Community Solar: The Ultimate Reclamation Tool
Community Solar is opening new development opportunities on marginal sites of all shapes and sizes, driving brownfield demand and making solar energy more accessible than ever—even to those without a roof or open field of their own.
Industry has long since left. It’s been decades since the last car fueled up. The ground is filled to the brim with a century’s worth of garbage. Whatever the exact situation, the same story is common across the United States: spaces that once provided communities with jobs, business, and service have been left polluted, contaminated, and condemned. Economic value has been replaced by burden, and that burden often falls solely on the backs of a community and its people.
Other than new factories and business, how can a community relieve this burden and return these legacy sites to productive glory? One increasingly feasible and powerful answer to this land use riddle can be a community solar development. Community solar can make use of marginal spaces while simultaneously producing value to community members.
What Is Community Solar?
In its simplest terms, community solar is the same as any other solar power installation and consists of a central array of solar photovoltaic panels that produce electricity. But electricity generated in a community solar development is owned—and shared—by subscribers, such as residents in an apartment building or neighborhood, businesses, or institutions, who receive credit on their electric bill from the local electric utility as power is generated. This arrangement allows anyone to simulate the act of putting solar on their own roof and enjoy the benefits of solar, including energy bill savings and a lower carbon footprint. This is especially advantageous to condo owners, renters and anyone else who would otherwise be unable to install their own solar panels.
Community solar is a relatively new and still an unfamiliar concept to many. Only a few states have enabled it by statute—Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Colorado, and Maryland. But across the country’s vast network of rural electric cooperatives and municipal electricity utilities, a growing number of community solar projects have given communities a taste of community solar as well. And the appetite for this productive solar model is growing towards becoming mainstream.
A Perfect Fit for Brownfields
Contamination and pollution often prevent traditional developers from using these sites for new development projects. It can be too costly to repair a site to residential or commercial standards—sectors where most developers do business. After all, it is a very risky endeavor to build homes or office buildings, and even riskier when questions may be asked about the health and wellbeing of people that will live or work there. This risk also keeps developers away from many brownfield sites that are not very contaminated, if contaminated at all, but stigmatized by disrepair, abandon and blight. They remain vacant nonetheless.
Sometimes contaminated spaces struggle to be developed even after being successfully remediated. For many old industrial sites, it isn’t enough to be clean and shovel-ready because they are simply located in areas that have little development demand to begin with. The large scale industry of the last century just isn’t what it once was and with changing manufacturing processes, shrinking supply chains and generational population shifts, there are many sites scaled to new industrial facility that’s probably not coming. These sites have territorial marginality.
And then there are the spaces that were never destined to be redeveloped given the nature of their use. Landfills, construction waste sites and other waste storage sites have been filled with refuse, entombed and covered or capped. These spaces were meant to be managed and never intended to be productively used again beyond waste storage, and one can classify these as truly marginal spaces. Only a handful of these spaces have been found to be suitable for gas capture or harvest, producing some income on the otherwise wasted site.
Community solar is a much less complicated development solution that can be applied to a much larger number of spaces, and developed regardless of the conditions that held the site back in the past. First, contamination presents no danger to a solar array, and so the fact that a location was contaminated or polluted in the past is not as important as when humans will dwell or office on site. It must be safe for the installers and comply with environmental laws, but if there will not be people living or working full-time at the solar facility then it may not require quite so costly a cleanup.
Second, a community solar array doesn’t suffer from territorial marginality. Sure, there are preferable locations for a solar array based on solar insulation and proximity to utility distribution lines, but unlike commercial or industrial businesses, a solar array need not be close to its customers and its supply line is 93 million miles away regardless of where it is on Earth. This gives community solar a significant leg up in places that have been seemingly passed over during recent phases of urbanization and globalization.
Another major consideration of community solar is that it can even be used at those truly marginal spaces. These written-off sites, such as landfills—that were never meant for another use—can be repurposed with a solar array quite easily in most locations. Solar arrays do not require perfectly flat terrain in which to place a foundation upon, like most buildings, and can usually be anchored relatively shallowly which is a must for capped landfills that are not very permeable. Layering solar panels on top of a landfill is the kind of “green on brown” development that earns greenbacks in addition to green electrons. Plus, should any maintenance be required on the landfill, solar panels are easily moved temporarily, something that isn’t possible for most permanent structures. And if large-scale land uses are back at the end of the (typically) 20 year project lifecycle, solar developments are easily deconstructed.
Finally, and perhaps the most important reason community solar works so well for brownfields, landfills and contaminated land is because it can bring an entire community together in the successful reclamation of a blighted property. Residents of the community are often the ones that have footed the bill to reclaim or at least maintain a brownfield property. Even if a brownfield is privately owned, the community may have endured an eyesore on the community’s aesthetics, lower property values and lost economic opportunity—and may have it chase friends and family away for greener pastures.
Flipping Blight to Bright
Community solar converts a negative into something positive and produces economic value by converting the sun’s energy into cheap electricity that will flow back to community members for years to come. And for many in the community, community solar also provides an opportunity that would not be available to them otherwise: to benefit directly from solar power. This is true for renters that don’t own their own roofs, but is also true of homeowners that have shaded roofs or families that can’t afford the cost of buying or leasing solar equipment.
There are few greener catalysts for community engagement and mutual economic benefit.
In the end, we need productive uses for brownfields, landfills and other underutilized land. Community solar can fill that demand gap, and offers high redevelopment potential even to smaller parcels in urban areas. The added utility and economic value of community solar presents a tremendous opportunity for communities across the country to pursue development that converts negative drags on the local landscape to positives providing daily value to individuals, families, and businesses throughout the community. And best of all, you won’t have to worry about the sun leaving for a better opportunity further down the road, well at least for another 5 billion years or so.
About Community Green Energy
Community Green Energy (CGE) builds centrally located solar arrays in communities nationwide whose energy is available to purchase by people, businesses, and organizations that want to save money on their electricity costs and support renewable energy. CGE's community solar projects offer you as a participant flexible options for you to receive your solar energy, including to simply buy the solar energy at a discount as it is generated, or to purchase a solar panel and have CGE install it in one of its projects.
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Visit Community Green Energy's website to learn more.
Or contact CGE now by calling 877.265.2799 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.