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A Beginner’s Guide to Community Solar Energy Usage

As community solar becomes more well-known to many people, there are some unanswered questions that might drive many potentially interested individuals from giving it a try. For example, a common unknown variable with many people is how and where the energy they are acquiring is tracked and stored. The hope is that this article will give anyone who is unsure of how this process works a better understanding in just three simple paragraphs.

1. The Energy You Obtain Is “Virtual”

Unlike with residential solar panels, energy produced with community solar projects is not directly supplied to the household that is is connected to these projects. Instead, a household connected with a community solar project receives solar credits through a process called Virtual Net Metering (VNM). Before understanding how VNM works, it is helpful to understand how regular net metering works with residential solar panels. With regular net metering, any excess solar energy produced by residential solar panels during the day is sent back to the grid, and in exchange for the excess energy, the utility company associated with that household converts the energy produced into solar credits that represent energy that is saved for when it is needed later, such as at night when solar panels do not produce any energy. The energy being used during times where the solar panels are not producing is provided to the household by the grid as needed, and if the amount of energy used exceeds the amount of energy stored as solar credits, the utility company simply charges for the rest of the energy used the same way that it would for a regular power bill. This process is very similar to VNM, except that with VNM the entirety of the process uses solar credits to keep track of how much energy is generated by a connected user’s solar panels. This is because the solar panels are not directly connected to the household, so the utility company uses solar credits as a way to keep track of how much energy to distribute to the household based on how much is produced. Like residential solar panels, if more energy is used than the amount of energy produced by the solar panels, the utility company simply charges for the rest of the energy used the same way that it would for a regular power bill. As a result, utility companies can easily supply the energy generated by the user’s solar panels the same way that they would for supplying excess energy to a household with residential solar panels.

2. By Obtaining Solar Credits, You Are Still Contributing to Clean Energy Production

As previously discussed, solar credits are essentially tokens representing an amount of energy that is saved for a later use. However, some confusion arises when the concept of solar credits is brought up in place of the actual electricity being created, and this idea causes the misconception that because you are only getting solar credits, you are not actually contributing to clean energy production. Thankfully that is far from the truth, as solar credits are more or less just a method of tracking solar energy production used by utility companies to distribute the amount solar energy produced. As with other forms of energy, the utility company plays a vital role in the process of community solar, being that they are the ones actually supplying the energy that is produced. This means that the energy produced from the community solar panels are still being supplied, except it is handled by the utility company and distributed from there instead, since the panels are not directly connected to the household.

Animation made by EnergySage of how net metering works

3. Excess Energy is Handled by Utility Companies

When it comes to storing excess energy produced by community solar panels, this process once again ties into the concept of utility companies using solar credits to distribute the corresponding amount of energy generated. This is mainly because this energy is not usually stored after being generated, but rather just treated the same as the rest of the energy supplied to the utility company, and distributed the same way as well. In the end, the clean energy is still used, but not necessarily at the same time that energy is consumed by the household that is connected with community solar. It is also ideal to expand on the idea of energy storage with community solar, and with solar panels in general. The concept of using batteries to store excess renewable energy is becoming more of a reality as the world continues to shift towards clean energy. Tesla has been working with a lithium ion battery energy storage system that works in conjunction with their residential solar installations called the Tesla Powerwall, which can store up to 13.5 kWh of energy for later use. Unfortunately, it is quite costly for such an amount of storage, reaching between $9,600 and $15,600 for a full system installation. It is worth mentioning that lithium ion batteries have been found to be quite expensive in general compared to their energy storage capacity, and many experts claim that if we are to delve further into the field of energy storage, a better energy storage solution needs to be found. A study made by CNBC found that there are a plethora of companies working on a revolutionary solution to this issue, with new storage methods from chemical flow batteries to thermal and cryogenic systems. A list of some companies working with these alternatives is included below. Perhaps with these potential breakthroughs combined with clean energy opportunities for everyone through community projects, the shift to 100% renewable energy may be even closer than expected!

Some Notable Renewable Energy Storage Companies:

~ Primus Power

~ Energy Vault

~ ESS Inc.

~ Form Energy

~ Antora Energy

~ Highview Power

References:

[1] https://news.energysage.com

[2] https://youtu.be/EoTVtB-cSps

[3] https://cleanenergysolutions.org

[4] https://www.seia.org/initiatives/whats-solar-renewable-energy-credit-srec

[6] https://energycenter.org/thought-leadership/blog/community-solar-california-missed-opportunity

[5] Animation by EnergySage

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Capella is on a mission to connect communities to a net zero future.

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