Community solar in Massachusetts: What you need to know
Written by Zeeshan Hyder
Updated March 12, 2020
6 minutes read
Solar energy has been heating up in Massachusetts over the past few years. Over 384,000 Massachusetts homes are powered by solar energy, making the state #7 for solar in the US. Good job Bay Staters!
Solar has grown fast in Mass. But the fact remains that many in the state either lack the space or the finances to get rooftop solar installed.
Luckily, there’s an innovative solution that allows Mass residents to go solar without getting solar panels of their own. It’s called community solar.
Community solar allows multiple parties to share the output (and benefits) of a large solar project. These projects are usually established and operated by a third party, typically an energy company.
You may have also heard of ‘shared solar’ and ‘community renewable energy.’ These are just other terms for community solar.
So what exactly is community solar, who is it for, and how does it work in Massachusetts?
What is community solar in Massachusetts?
Community solar allows homeowners and businesses to tap into the energy generation from a local solar farm or solar garden. Homeowners or businesses purchase a subscription to the farm, thereby owning a portion of it. In return, they receive a share of the farm’s solar energy supply.
There is no installation required, no upfront costs, and no need for maintenance. Subscribers receive solar credits that get automatically applied to their utility bill to reduce its cost.
The idea is to give participants the benefits of solar — reduced electric bills and clean energy — without the need for solar panels on their property.
Community solar first developed in Massachusetts in 2008 thanks to the Green Communities Act. This legislation introduced virtual net metering in the state for the first time. Virtual net metering allows you to sell your share of electricity from the solar farm back to the utility company. In return, you receive credits that are applied to your electricity bill.
How does community solar work?
Here are the steps involved in how community solar delivers solar energy to local residents and businesses.
- Step 1: An energy company constructs a solar farm or garden in the area.
- Step 2: Residents and business owners can purchase a subscription online for the program.
- Step 3: The solar farm's produced energy is allocated to the local power grid.
- Step 4: Subscribers earn solar credits which are then automatically applied to the utility bill to reduce its cost.
- Step 5: Each subscriber receives two monthly bills; one from the electric company and the other from their community solar subscription.
What community solar programs operate in Mass?
The following energy companies currently offer programs to community solar customers in Massachusetts:
|Energy Company||Community Solar Program|
|Clearway Energy Group||Clearway Community Solar
(formerly known as NRG Community Solar)
|Clean Energy Collective||Roofless Solar|
|CVE North America||Halo Solar|
|BlueWave Solar||BlueWave Community Solar|
Major community solar developments in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is one of the most happening states for community solar. Here are some recent developments that have attracted interest in the sector:
Happy Hollow community solar-plus-storage farm
This 7.1 MW project is owned by SunRaise but managed by CleanChoice Energy. Construction for it was completed in March 2019.
The Happy Hollow solar farm is currently the largest community solar-plus-storage project in MA. It has 3.3 MW of energy storage.
The Happy Hollow solar farm was built on a former gravel pit.
Image Credit: Solar Industry Mag
Spencer solar farm by Clearway Community Solar (formerly NRG Energy)
This large community solar farm is located in Spencer, Massachusetts. The farm spans 200 acres that is shared with St. Joseph's Abbey. It produces 14.7 megawatts, enough to power nearly 3,000 homes.
At the time of its completion in November 2016, it was the largest co-located community solar project in Massachusetts.
The Spencer community solar farm next to St. Joseph’s Abbey.
Image credit: MECC
CVE North America launches Halo Solar
CVE North America made headlines when it launched Halo Community Solar by acquiring a small community farm in Acushnet, Massachusetts.
While the Acushnet project is small — just 650 kW — Halo Solar plans to launch several more community farms. They have already submitted proposals for 36 MW under the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program.
The Acushnet solar farm. It's small, but Halo Solar has big community solar plans.
Image credit: Halo Solar
What are the benefits of community solar in Massachusetts?
Community solar opens up the benefits of solar energy to a greater number of people who previously were off limits. This includes anyone who:
- has a roof setup which receives limited sunlight or is facing the wrong direction (i.e. has a poor orientation);
- rents their home; or
- lives in an apartment or condo.
Community solar gives all of these people the option of going solar. And it’s not just for individuals or families. Municipalities can also use community solar to offset the power bills of buildings such as schools or town halls.
In short, community solar is a great option for Massachusetts residents, business owners, and communities. It allows them to generate clean energy, support local jobs, and save money on power bills.
What are the downsides of community solar in Massachusetts?
Let’s start with the big one: community solar gives substantially smaller savings than rooftop solar.
This is because Massachusetts passed legislation in 2016 reducing the virtual net metering tariff. Power from community solar is now valued at just 60% of retail value.
This is much less than the one-for-one bill credit (i.e. 100% of retail value) you can earn from your own solar power system thanks to net metering.
Community solar programs also require a long-term commitment of at least 20 years. This may not be an issue for a young family that has settled down to raise children. However, homeowners planning on relocating in the foreseeable future should probably consider other options, such as portable solar panels.
Is community solar worth it in Massachusetts?
Community solar programs will save you money by lowering your utility bills. Some programs also offer several subscription options to match your energy usage.
However, if your home can support a solar panel installation, compare both options before deciding. Here’s why:
Savings comparison: your own solar system vs community solar
Start by using the solar calculator below. It will give you a detailed estimate of solar panels for your home. You will see solar panel cost, utility bill savings, and a forecasted net cash flow for 25 years.
Now compare your results with the potential savings from community solar.
To do a like-for-like comparison, you need to figure out the cost and savings of community solar. The monthly subscription rate would be the cost of community solar. The savings would be the community solar virtual net metering credits that lower your utility bills. Your net savings will be your utility bill savings minus the subscription cost.
You will almost certainly find the savings from getting your own panels to be much higher. Massachusetts is a leading state for solar. This means that your payback period could be as short as 4 years, and your total savings over $100,000. Savings from community solar, on the other hand, are far more modest — only up to 10% of your utility bills.
Installing solar panels can also boost your home's property value. If you plan to sell your home one day you could recover the cost of installation.
Verdict: Community solar is convenient but saves you less than rooftop solar panels
Community solar in Massachusetts is certainly a great option for residents and businesses that cannot have rooftop solar panels installed. It enables home and business owners take advantage of solar energy, lower their utility bills, and help the environment.
However, the program does have its limitations, most significantly its lower Virtual Net Metering rate. The result is that community solar will save you far less money than solar panels on your property could.
Learn more about community solar
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) - A guide to community solar (pdf)
- SolarReviews - What is community solar and is it better than installing solar panels on your home?
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) - Shared Solar: Current Landscape, Market Potential, and the Impact of Federal Securities Regulation (pdf)