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6 things we learned about the power of community solar

Solar power’s prospects become brighter each day.

One way to flip that light switch even higher is community solar, in which local neighborhoods or villages share ownership of a solar power system. At our second Frontiers in the Environment “Big Questions” talk October 7, IonE resident fellow Kathryn Milun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, presented the case for this renewable energy approach in “Why Do We Need Community Solar?”

Here are six things we learned:

  1. Today’s energy system is not set up for solar. Milun said she finds it hard to believe that investor-owned utility companies — with their existing investments centered on coal plants and natural gas — will readily and willingly embrace solar power. To keep global warming below 2 °C, we’ll need to keep carbon emissions under 886 gigatons for 2000–2050, which means we must move quickly on solar and other renewables. The problem: Companies have already claimed and added to their asset ledgers more than three times that much carbon in untapped coal, oil and gas reserves. Without big pressure, Milun says, the private sector won’t do what needs to be done. Even when private companies do build solar power plants, she says, they sometimes do so at scales and in ways that alienate local communities, take out precious farmland and damage local ecosystems.
  2. Community solar can be part of the solution. Community solar — where communities own the multiple benefits of solar — is a useful mechanism for overcoming these challenges. There are many ways to make sure the many benefits of solar are accessible to communities: having federal energy assistance dollars for low-income households go directly to local solar providers rather than to large utilities invested in fossil fuels, for instance, or creating new financing programs that allow small-scale solar producers to sell their electricity in renewable energy markets. Milun proposes using the legal tool of trust ownership, which allows community-embedded entities — churches, existing community land trusts, other nonprofits — to manage solar for the benefit of a local community. In India, for example, the group Gram Oorja sets up photovoltaic systems in local villages that allow the villagers to be owners and managers (trustees) of the system and its many benefits.
  3. Community solar can help low-income communities. A George Washington Solar Institute working paper concluded that if poor communities throughout the U.S. had access to community solar, they’d see billions of dollars in new economic activity and an extra 138,000 jobs. A neighborhood that owns its own photovoltaic system through a community trust can use the income stream produced through electricity sales to support long-term projects, such as a shaded outdoor gathering place, a community garden or an annual festival.
  4. Consider culture. Community solar’s strength, according to Milun, lies in its drive to fit solar into people’s broader value system. Accordingly, mass-produced process won’t work; instead, solar projects should be customized for local communities. In Brazil, social entrepreneur Fabio Rosa got solar units into the hands of villagers, but saw that people didn’t always care for the equipment well. He overcame that obstacle by including a small clay saint statue with every unit, which fit solar into the symbolic system of Brazil’s Catholic culture and allowed people to better recognize the value of this new technology.
  5. Space and place affect solar. Geography matters, and it’s more than the culture and climate of a location. Milun is designing and building community trust-owned solar projects — Solar Commons — in both Minnesota and Arizona, and she noted that differences between the two states (different laws, different attitudes, different energy grids) underscore the importance of tailoring solar to its local context. When solar panels are installed in Arizona parks, for example, they can be designed to create shade, a cool commodity in the state’s hot climate.
  6. Public art helps paint solar in a new light. Milun noted that community solar projects can use art “to make visible the public nature of energy production.” Our electric grid uses public rights of way; our coal and gas plants use the planetary public expanse of our atmosphere. Milun’s Solar Commons project uses the photovoltaic system as a way to “make public” the relationship between our energy landscape and our common home, the Earth. In one Solar Commons proposal, for instance, an architect assembled solar panels to fit the form of a dragonfly, bending technology to fit nature. When community members collaborate to create art for their community Solar Commons installation, they not only get a stake in solar’s success, but are educated about the environment, too.

Watch the video of “Why Do We Need Community Solar?”

Communications Assistant


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