When you think of solar power, California undoubtedly comes to mind. The state’s strong climate goals paired with abundant sunshine have helped California reach record rooftop and utility-scale solar buildout. But surprisingly, its community solar programs (not to be confused with community choice aggregation) haven’t been able to gain traction.
Out of the 5,700 megawatts of installed community solar in the country, less than 1% of that is in California. And for perspective, California has more than 40,000 megawatts of installed solar capacity.
Unfortunately, the state’s current community solar programs haven’t been able to incentivize these projects. Customers must often pay a premium for clean electricity under the programs because of high administrative fees and low bill credits. Other program designs, such as limits on project size and subscriber restrictions, have made these projects difficult to pursue.
But that will hopefully change as the state makes moves to update its community solar program.
Community solar is a means to provide clean energy access to groups who have traditionally been left out of the rooftop solar transition—renters, multi-family units, low-income households. These projects allow customers to subscribe to a local solar project and receive the clean electricity being produced via bill credits.
In addition to clean energy access, well-designed community solar programs (which is not currently the case in California) can reduce electricity bills for subscribing residents. These projects can additionally improve grid resilience for communities, especially when paired with batteries. Furthermore, projects that deliver electricity locally reduce the need for transmission buildout, which is expensive and takes time.
This model of clean energy access has the potential to address some of the equity gaps in our transition to a cleaner grid. One of these equity gaps has been rural and farming communities, which are often also disadvantaged communities in California.
California’s current agricultural practices aren’t sustainable. The industry needs to reduce and better manage its water usage. Certain practices, such as pesticide and fertilizer overuse, have harmful health consequences to local communities. To transition to a more sustainable agricultural system, we’ll need to retire some of this cropland. While the land won’t be used for farming, there are other ways to repurpose it such as community spaces, habitat restoration, businesses, and you guessed it, solar projects!
Solar projects can provide a host of benefits to these farming communities, including a more stable revenue stream for farmers and higher-paying and more stable jobs for farmworkers. They are also much less polluting than fossil-fueled energy resources and some agricultural practices, which can improve local air and water conditions.
But if we want to put solar in these rural communities, we need to not make the same mistakes as extractive agriculture.
Take the San Joaquin Valley, an incredibly profitable agricultural region in California. Despite producing a significant amount of the nation’s food, farmworkers often suffer from food and nutrition insecurity. Many of these rural communities similarly can’t afford to be energy secure. With extreme heat waves becoming a norm for California summers, affordable electricity for air conditioning is necessary for survival. As solar projects are sited in rural areas, we need to ensure that local communities receive the benefit from these projects.
Community solar can directly address this issue by offering clean electricity to local residents at more affordable rates. And while this is an important start, there are even more ways community solar projects should engage with communities.
While some farming communities have embraced clean energy, there are also many that are wary of the growing industry. Despite the potential benefits, developers haven’t always properly involved local communities in the process for building out energy projects, leading to harm and distrust. The expansion of solar projects in rural areas may also be perceived as a threat to the farming culture ingrained in many of these communities.
But there is hope that a well-designed community solar program could do a better job at addressing these concerns.
As California crafts its new community solar program, the focus needs to be on community empowerment and equity.
Community solar projects have potential to give communities more agency over their energy future, offering a cleaner and more resilient option in the face of worsening extreme weather events. But despite the name, it can’t be presumed that these projects will be community-based. Ensuring the community is involved in community solar is something that must be intentionally designed into how California’s state program creates community partnerships. Incentivizing developers and local officials to engage early on in the process with those impacted can build transparency, trust, and ultimately a sense of community ownership towards these solar projects.
This means that communities should have input in how these community solar projects are built, including where to site projects, what type of subscription model, and how to mitigate or compensate any environmental or social harms from the projects. Jobs that are created throughout the process should use local workers and provide workforce development when possible. In the case of cropland repurposing, these opportunities should be prioritized for farmworkers displaced from the agricultural sector.
Similarly, equity must be designed into the program, including accounting for differences between community solar in rural and urban settings. For example, California’s community solar program for disadvantaged communities originally required subscribers to live within five miles of the project, essentially preventing any of these projects in rural areas.
There should also be robust funds and accessible information for rural farming communities to take advantage of these programs.
If we agree that some of California’s cropland needs to be retired (and we definitely do), then this already disturbed land is prime for developing new solar projects if communities are on board.
While I’ve used this space to talk about the intersection of community solar and cropland repurposing, updating California’s community solar program will have much broader benefits across the state. But we’ll need proper funding to direct the benefits of affordable, clean, and reliable electricity to communities.
With lots of funding opportunities on the table, it’s a great time to be focusing on community solar. The California Environmental Justice Alliance has advocated for the California Energy Commission to use funds from the state’s Clean Energy Reliability Investment Plan to support urban community solar projects in low-income communities. From a federal perspective, the Inflation Reduction Act has funds available for community solar projects and additional tax credits for solar projects that can advance the Justice 40 initiative and expand access for low-income communities.
It’s exciting that California is finally revamping its community solar program. And as the state plans to retire cropland, community solar is a great option to repurpose that land to the benefit of farming communities. More broadly, a strong community solar program will be an important piece for the state’s transition to a cleaner grid, and also a space that can address equity and other resource issues in California.