If you’ve ever wished your house could run off of solar power, but have found the cost to be too high or don’t live in a single-family home, then community solar might solve that.
An alternative to putting solar panels on the roof of a house is for a neighborhood to build a small solar farm nearby, with all participating households owning a share of the farm. While community solar is a growing idea in the energy industry, it can appeal and be accessible to more communities, especially low-income ones, if the residents have not only financial ownership of the project but also emotional ownership. A report written by Stanford undergraduates outlines recommendations for providing community members with this sense of emotional ownership.
“Instead of having communities fight the development, they can agree and get excited and motivated to contribute to this development,” said Stanford undergraduate Kara Herson.
Through the TomKat Impact Fellowship program, four Stanford undergraduate students engaged with community members in the El Dorado Park area of Fresno to understand how a solar farm could best fit the community's needs. The students worked directly with Shake Energy Collaborative, a new energy development company that builds community energy projects that are both community designed and owned.
“The true community aspect of community solar can be pretty limited,” said Ali Andrews, Shake Energy Collaborative co-founder and CEO. Shake Energy holds workshops, partners with community organizations, and facilitates conversations about solar projects, and then incorporates expressed values into the design and implementation of the project, Andrews said.
Through community solar, households can sign up to save money on their electricity bills, receive the electricity directly or a community organization can buy-in on the project, putting revenue towards community resources. Shake Energy envisions a dual-land use approach, meaning the land need not be used exclusively for solar production. They can construct elevated solar panel installations so that shaded community spaces including playgrounds and gardens can be incorporated beneath.
The undergraduate interns spent their summer unpacking these questions of what makes and drives both financial and emotional ownership over a project. Their primary responsibility was to interview community members in Fresno and use those conversations to better understand how community members would most benefit from a solar project in their neighborhood.
“If you’re a solar provider, you’ve got to do more than just provide solar and charge them the bills. You’ve got to see what communities really need and how you can help them,” said Stanford undergraduate Josue Gil-Silva. Undergraduates Eliana Fuchs and Marc Huerta also worked with Herson and Gil-Silva on the project.
Bringing community members into the design process and keeping them involved throughout the course of the project can give community members a sense of what Shake Energy calls emotional ownership. “We didn’t invent the idea,” Andrews said, “but I do think it is relatively novel in the energy space.”
Community members can achieve a sense of emotional ownership largely through having conversations with energy developers like Shake Energy. “For a lot of them it was just having their input, asking them questions about what’s important to them and what they value,” Gil-Silva explained. “More than anything, it was just feeling like their voices are heard.”
The undergraduate team was advised by graduate student Sita Syal, who is a candidate for PhD in Stanford’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“Traditional energy developers do not often place priority on their interactions with the community; their focus lies on the aspects of the project that will directly make them profits,” said Syal. “What the energy development industry does not realize is the community is a crucial partner and developing a strong relationship can lead to higher project success rates. Engaging the community early and uncovering their needs is a mutually beneficial process for all stakeholders.”
Shake Energy is particularly focused on bringing solar energy into a more accessible space by partnering with low-income communities. Community solar can help fill the gap in participation in and accessibility to renewables particularly in low-income communities, Andrews said.
“There are community solar projects out there, but the truth is there’s not many that really reach out to low-income communities and communities that don’t have access,” Gil-Silva said. “The fact that Shake Energy focuses on building equity through renewable energy is really crucial.”
At the end of the summer, the undergraduate interns reported on the needs El Dorado Park residents identified, and made recommendations for community engagement and co-design. Building trust, sustaining relationships with the community, minimizing barriers to involvement in the project, and using methods that resonate with a community are crucial for building emotional ownership, the students' found.
They also explored different financial models based on the community’s financial needs including a cooperatively-owned model and a community organization-owned model. When community members own a solar project cooperatively, they can realize utility bill savings. However, when a community organization owns a solar project, revenue can be invested into community programs and services. This is especially beneficial if community members do not have high utility bills.
“The students did a really amazing job,” Andrews said. “For us, it’s going to be a pretty foundational document in terms of how we move forward.”
In the future, Shake Energy hopes to scale up its operations and add team members to serve as community organizers. This list of recommendations will be very helpful in guiding that community organization work, Andrews said.
“In a decade, I hope every neighborhood will have renewable energy and that it starts with low-income communities because they currently don't have access. Hopefully this is starting a trend for the future being able to give these communities access to it as well,” Gil-Silva said.
Learn more about Energy Impact Fellowships.