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Massachusetts Community Solar

Last Updated April 18, 2024

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Michael Jones

By Michael Jones

Michael literally wrote the book on solar (it’s called The Homeowners’ Guide to Going Solar) and has been a solar consultant for over four years.

Massachusetts community solar farms are the only way for most people to access renewable energy

Much as we love helping homeowners on Cape Cod to go solar, the sad truth is that not every home is a good candidate for rooftop solar panels. People who rent their homes, people with too much shade, people for whom the numbers just don’t add up, and people who just don’t like the look of solar panels on their roof.

Those people may feel that they’re excluded from the benefits of renewable energy. But that’s not true.  

Thanks to community solar, anyone can tap into clean, renewable energy – and save money on their electricity bills while they’re at it.

In this article, we’ll explain how Massachusetts community solar works and who can benefit most from it. We’ll walk you through the pros and cons, and explain how you can go about signing up for a community solar program near you.

What is Community Solar

Described by Canary Media as a democratized alternative to rooftop solar panels, community solar refers to relatively large solar projects, typically capped at about 5 megawatts, that provide electricity to a diverse group of subscribers—ranging from individuals, families, organizations and companies.

Where rooftop solar panels deliver power exclusively to the building that stands under that rooftop, community solar projects deliver their power directly to the grid, so the subscribers don’t receive the exact same electrons that the panels produce, they just get an equivalent amount of electricity from the grid and a corresponding credit on their electric bill.

The subscribers provide the economic underpinnings for the solar project, which in turns adds more renewable energy to the grid. The subscribers get cheaper power, the developer makes a profit on the sale of that power, as well as benefiting from various renewable energy tax credits, and the utility company gets help meeting its own state-mandated renewable energy targets. 

Oh, and then there’s that whole saving the planet thing, as well.

Done right, Massachusetts community solar can be a win, win, win, win.

Why Some Homes Can’t Go Solar

There are many reasons why even the most environmentally conscious homeowner on Cape Cod might not be a good candidate for rooftop solar. And even for people who are, their panels might not be able to meet all of their electrical needs. Massachusetts community solar can bridge the gap.

Too Much Shade

Cape Cod is a shadier place than most people realize. While the dunes and the beaches offer plenty of bright, sunny spaces, the neighborhoods where most Cape Codders actually live are often nestled among trees. 

Sometimes these trees can be removed but oftentimes it’s a giant tree on neighboring conservation land that is shading the roof. And even if it weren’t on conservation land, taking trees down is expensive. The exorbitant cost of removing a tree or two can make the difference between a solar project that makes sense financially and one that doesn’t.

For those homeowners, Massachusetts community solar could be the answer.

Too Many Home Upgrades

Before a home can go solar, it has to be inspected by the solar company. The roof and the electrical panel are the main concerns, but not the only ones. If it is determined that a home needs expensive upgrades before it can go solar, it might make it difficult to make the numbers work. 

The local community solar project doesn’t require you to have a new roof or electrical panel  in order to sign up.

Don’t Own the Home

Not everyone on Cape Cod owns the home they live in. Solar companies can only sign you up for solar if you’re the homeowner. And while some renters have a working relationship with their landlord, most don’t and so could never sign up for rooftop solar.

But anyone with an electric bill can sign up for Massachusetts community solar, whether they own the home or not.

Zoning Restrictions & HOA Rules

Cape Cod is rightfully proud of its historic districts and picturesque homes and has enacted a number of regulations designed to keep that historical integrity intact. The Old Kings Highway Historic District often denies homeowners permission to add rooftop solar panels, or severely restricts the size of such systems if they’re visible from the street.

Local neighborhoods like Great Island in Yarmouth or New Seabury in Mashpee also have homeowners associations that either restrict rooftop solar or insist on certain roofing materials (which can have the same effect). 

If your neighbors or the historical district won’t allow you to install panels on your roof, community solar would still allow you to go solar.

Use Too Much Electricity

And, of course, even homeowners who can install rooftop solar might not be able to meet all of their electrical needs. This mostly applied to people who heat their homes with electricity, which used to be relatively rare on Cape Cod. 

Now, with mini-splits becoming all the rage, and EVs starting to gain popularity, it’s possible that even a roof that’s fully loaded with solar panels won’t generate enough power to meet a modern family’s growing electrical needs. 

Signing up for community solar will ensure that any excess power the home consumes also comes from cheaper, renewable sources.

Is Massachusetts Community Solar the Solution?

If either of the above scenarios applies to you, then Massachusetts community solar could be the answer. As an industry, community solar has been around since about 2010, and there are currently 39 states, plus Washington, D.C. where it is offered. But almost 75% of the projects are located in just four states – Massachusetts, New York, Florida and Minnesota.

So we’re lucky to live in a state where we can benefit from going solar, even if we can’t go solar.

Choose Your Own Electricity Supplier

Massachusetts is somewhat unusual in that it is one of only 15 states in the US that has a deregulated electricity market. That means that Bay State electricity customers are allowed to purchase their electricity from any one of several dozen electricity suppliers that are allowed to operate in the state.

This culture of switching electricity suppliers has given Massachusetts community solar projects something of a foothold here since customers are quite used to the idea that their local utility company delivers the electricity and is not necessarily the same company that supplies it.

Massachusetts community solar fhas bee described as a democratized version of rooftop solar

The Green Communities Act and Its Impact

It was the enactment of the Green Communities Act in 2008 that reshaped how Massachusetts engages with renewable energy. This legislation not only fostered a supportive environment for sustainable initiatives but also set up crucial rules on virtual net metering that allowed electricity customers to receive credits for energy generated at community solar farms.

This promoted wider adoption and positioned Massachusetts community solar as a national leader with over 200 projects operational by late 2023.

What is Virtual Net Metering?

If the economics of rooftop solar are underpinned by Massachusetts’ generous Net Metering Program, then it’s fair to say that the economics of Massachusetts community solar are equally underwritten by virtual net metering.

Virtual net metering is the billing mechanism that allows individuals to benefit from “selling” solar energy back to the grid, even if the solar panels that produce the energy are not located directly on their property. 

Just as a homeowner whose rooftop panels can receive net metering credits for sending their excess power back into the grid, Massachusetts community solar subscribers can receive similar credits for the power they send directly to the grid from a nearby solar farm.

So it is through virtual net metering that the subscribers receive the economic incentive to subscribe. It shows up as a discount on the electricity bill.

Billing For Community Solar

This is one area where community solar needs to up its game. Billing can be confusing and usually results in the customer receiving two separate bills. Some states, most notably New York, now offer consolidated billing, where the customer’s community solar credits show up on one utility bill.

Massachusetts community solar is not there yet, so let’s take a minute to explain how it all works:

Let’s say you get a bill from Eversource that says you used $205 worth of electricity, broken down as follows:

  • $105 for Supply (300 kWh at 35 cents per kWh)
  • $90 for Delivery
  • $10 Customer charge and other fees

Let’s say you subscribed to a Massachusetts community solar farm and received a 20% discount on your electric supply for doing so. And just to keep things simple, let’s assume that your portion of that solar farm produced exactly the same 300 kWh of power for that month (although the usage seldom matches up exactly in that way).  

You would receive a credit on your bill for the 300 kWh and, therefore, be charged nothing by the utility company for the supply of electricity that month. You would just owe the $100 for delivery and fees.

Then you would get a separate bill from the community solar developer for the same 300 kWh but they would only charge you 28 cents per kWh, or $84. You would save $21 on your electric bill.

If your portion of the solar farm produced more or less than the 300 kWh you used, then the numbers would adjust accordingly but, either way, you are paying 20% less for the vast majority of the power you consume.

How to Sign Up for Massachusetts Community Solar

At the time of writing there were half-a-dozen Massachusetts community solar projects listed on the Energy Sage Community Solar Marketplace. Bear in mind that companies pay to be listed there so there may be others who chose not to pay and, therefore, are not listed.

Meanwhile, the Cape Cod Solar Guys have partnered with Think Energy for Massachusetts community solar and would be happy to explain their program further and get you signed up. We do receive a commission if you sign up through our link, but that’s not why we endorse them. 

We endorse them because we like the way they do business and we think they’ll take great care of you. 

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