In a strange turn of events, some of the most rural and conservative parts of the country are where solar adoption is growing the fastest, brought about by a liberal-sounding sales structure called community solar. Rural electric cooperatives love it, which is ironic. These small utilities fought for years against being lumped into state renewable energy portfolios, but now realize that solar could aid in their stability — and even their survival.
The idea behind community solar is simple: Build a large solar array and sell or lease shares of it to members of the community. Count the electricity it creates against the subscribers’ monthly power bills.
“It wasn’t an issue of whether it was green or not,” said a hog farmer outside Kalona, Iowa, who signed up for two shares of community solar but didn’t want to weigh in on the political question or let a big-city reporter use his name. “It just made economic sense.”
The solar cognoscenti usually talk about community solar as a tool for the city the suburbs. It could help the poor trim their power bills, or allow apartment dwellers to participate in clean energy. But city-based utilities and their regulators have been slow off the mark. Only 13 community-solar programs exist at investor-owned utilities and 22 at municipal utilities, according to data from the Smart Electric Power Alliance.