Around 86% of the electricity used in Australia is generated from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels and according to the Australian government, this electricity generation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 37.2% to the country’s total emissions.
In the US, electricity generated from dirty sources accounts for 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions.
Now as a committed greenie, I’m doing my bit to reduce my household’s carbon footprint; my home is completely off-grid and independent of electricity companies and runs on solar power. To put this in perspective, every time I charge my laptop, or phone or turn on the blender or TV, I can do so guilt-free knowing that I’m not adding more carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, I haven’t paid an electricity bill in the past four years since we generate our own solar energy.
For many people, however, the significant upfront costs of solar panels is prohibitive; a typical solar system costs around A $5,000 to $9,000 and in the US it costs about $11,000 – depending on the quality of the hardware used. And it’s not just the high initial costs deterring uptake of renewable energy, many people are either renting or live in apartment and don’t really have a say on the matter. That is a decision for their landlords or building manager.
So does that mean clean energy is only available to those who can afford it most? Or those who are homeowners?
The short answer is no. There are two alternative options available to you: green power and community solar.
1. Purchase green electricity
In Australia, the United States, and many other countries, there are companies who generate renewable energy and feed it back into the grid. This electricity can be purchased by individuals, businesses and other third parties.
In Australia, renters, households and businesses can purchase electricity produced from renewable sources through the government-accredited scheme GreenPower.
This certified renewable energy product can be purchased from many of the major electricity retailers such as AGL, Origin Energy and Powershop; in fact, Powershop received the top ranking in the independent 2018 Green Electricity Guide. Powershop’s parent company Meridian Energy, a 100% renewable generator, owns and operates six renewable generation assets such as Mt Mercer Wind Farm in VIC and the Hume Hydro in NSW. In addition, Powershop customers get 100% accredited carbon neutral energy – free!
The renewable electricity available through GreenPower comes at a higher price, costing 10-50% more than standard electricity. There are a number of reasons, but essentially building a completely new infrastructure for the grid as well as energy availability is what contributes to the higher cost. But as demand for GreenPower grows, price should decrease.
GreenPower customers have been responsible for pouring $500 million into Australia’s renewable energy industry since 2009 and have saved more than 9.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from going into the atmosphere, equivalent to 2.9 million cars being taken off our roads for a year.
Australia’s Renewable Energy Target is to generate 33,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) by 2020 through renewable sources or 23.5% of Australia’s electricity generation. Currently, just 14% is produced from renewable sources.
In the US, 18% of all electricity generated was produced by clean energy in 2017, which includes wind, solar and hydroelectric dams. This is up from 15% in 2016, despite the country’s climate change denier of a President.
The US continues to power on with state-based clean energy and climate policies in the face of Trump, led by the sustainability-embracing private sector and progressive state governments like California.
Now there are hundreds of energy service companies offering green electricity in the US. Before making a decision, it pays to follow the advice of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who recommends purchasing third-party certified and verified green power as it meets stringent nationally accepted standards.
The EPA recommends using the “Find Green-e Certified” online search tool as it will help you to locate the right certified green power provider for your home or business.
2. Community solar
Apartment dwellers, renters and low-income earners often feel they are priced out of roof solar opportunities so community solar energy projects are another ideal green energy alternative.
Unlike a home solar system which is installed on the roof of your house, a community solar project is a larger-scale set-up where solar energy is generated and then shared around a community; individuals invest in the project and by doing so they get access to the solar power. These projects usually come in two forms; solar farms and solar gardens.
A Solar farm (sometimes referred to as a shared renewable energy plant in the US) is where solar panels are installed on the rooftop of a large community building or mounted on-ground.
A solar garden is only slightly different; customers get the option to lease or buy solar panels with the electricity generated from those panels credited to the customer’s energy bill, ideal for those who cannot install solar at their residence.
Benefits to community solar projects:
- Access to affordable clean energy
- Reduced energy bills
- Profit potential on the investment
- Improved energy security
- Reduced reliance on the national grid
- Investing in your community future
To participate in community solar requires less upfront investment than home solar, and depending on the administrator of the community solar project, there are different financing options available.
Solar farms are the most common form of community solar project in Australia.
One example is the 1.2 megawatt Goulburn Community Solar Farm consisting of 5,500 solar panels expected to be built this year (although has been recently put on hold, for now). If the project proceeds, the farm will sell energy generated on to a large end user (a council or university) or an energy retailer who will then on sell to members of the local community. The solar farm is expected to produce enough power for 400 homes. Each investor will own at least one solar panel and any profits made will be kept within the community.
The other type of community solar project, the solar garden, is not yet available in Australia (although popular in the US). The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) a government agency devoted to funding renewable projects, is looking to change this. It has provided $240,000 of funding to the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) to undertake a feasibility study on solar gardens.
ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said: “Almost a third of Australians are unable to put solar on their roofs because they are renting, live in apartments or live in low-income housing. Solar gardens give consumers the benefits of rooftop solar, even if you don’t have a roof available to put it on.”
“We’re excited to be supporting the feasibility into a concept that will allow people from all backgrounds and living circumstances to benefit from renewable energy.”
Related Post: Sustainable Living: Is It Just For Rich People?
There are over 70 community energy projects operating in Australia and more than 90 projects currently being developed. For some projects, the solar electricity generated will be used by the host site and for others, the electricity will be sold to a retailer, or into the National Electricity Market.
Check out the Coalition for Community Energy website for pricing and an up-to-date list of opportunities and projects.
According to the EPA, “Community solar programs offer the economic and environmental benefits of solar to the 49% of Americans without traditional solar access, either because of physical, ownership or financial limitations.”
Despite the systematic dismantling of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, there was sharp industry growth in US solar in 2017, with a total installed capacity of 49.3 gigawatts (GW), or enough to power 9.5 million U.S. homes and this trend is expected to continue.
Community solar projects are popping up across the nation, from sunny California to Minnesota. The state of New York particularly has one of the most active and progressive community solar markets in the USA with a 1,000% solar growth in the state over the last six years. Supported by Governor Cuomo’s $1 billion initiative to advance the acceleration of solar in the state, its largest community solar project to date was completed in February 2018, consisting of almost 10,000 solar panels.
According to the state government, 78,323 solar projects were installed through the end of December 2017 producing enough electricity to power 159,000 average homes. New York has another 728 megawatts of community solar projects in the pipeline anticipated to generate enough clean energy to power 120,000 homes.
To find US-based community solar projects near you, check out this website.
For a breakdown of how community solar projects are priced, click here.
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All images and videos courtesy of Route Del Sol.