The term “shared solar” is sometimes considered a subset of a broader category of “community solar” but the terms are virtual synonyms. The term “shared solar” is rapidly overtaking “community solar” as more and more states refer to solar farm net metering programs as Shared Solar or Community Shared Solar. In some states the term “solar farm” or “solar garden” is used instead.
Until recently solar electricity development has been confined to two approaches:
- Rooftop (or occasional ground mount) distributed generation projects that benefit a single building owner or
- Large utility scale projects that feed into the grid for the benefit of all customers.
Both approaches have drawbacks. The first provides alternative energy supply to a limited number of homeowners and businesses that have sufficiently large, well maintained, and unobstructed roof space. Apartment dwellers, building owners with old roofs in need of repair, and homeowners in the woods need not apply.
In an effort to broaden the range of eligible consumers regulators in several states have pressured utilities to offer consumers a third approach: Access to solar electricity generated from non-contiguous rooftops and land. The benefits are transferred via credits on consumers’ bills in the same way that the utilities now credit distributed generation customers with credits for excess electricity that they produce and feed into the grid.
This third approach for solar projects is known as “shared solar.” Consumers share in the electricity production of a solar farm (or, theoretically, a remote rooftop). Sometimes consumers will own or lease panels that are used to generate power. Otherwise they may simply buy blocks of kilowatts produced by the solar farm.
The US federal government is now leading an effort to expand the reach of shared solar through a group known as the National Community Solar Partnership. The Partnership was launched by the White House in July 2015 and represents the joint efforts of the Department of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
The NCSP estimates that by 2020 shared solar could represent 32-49% of all solar production in the United States.