There’s an old saying that “sun shines on everyone.” While it’s true as a metaphor, as a practical matter only 50% of Americans can use the sun directly to power their homes and automobiles. There are several reasons for this. The first hurdle to accessing solar power is exposure. With present technology, a home needs to receive four to six hours a day of direct sun to make an on-site photovoltaic system economically feasible. While unobstructed southern exposure is ideal, photovoltaic panels can produce energy when facing any direction. South is best, east and west are good. However, even if the orientation is good, trees and buildings may block too much sun for panels to be feasible.

Other homes may have different issues. For example, some homes do not have enough roof surface free of obstructions, such as dormers, chimneys and plumbing vents, to hold sufficient panels. Renters also have problems with solar panels. They are seldom willing or allowed to invest in a costly long-term upgrade to a landlord’s property. The residents and owners of multifamily buildings may not be able to use the roof for panels, and roof space may be too limited for the number of units in a large building. Finally, some people simply can’t afford the upfront cost of adding solar panels. Whatever the reason, installing on-site solar electricity has been a challenge for many people who would like to benefit from solar energy.

One solution to almost all of these challenges is community solar. You can think of it as a “virtual power plant.” Every community solar member that pays an electric bill has access to the benefits of solar energy without the hassles. Community solar members don’t need to install, operate, or maintain the equipment. Nor are members involved in the business side of power purchase agreements, tax filings, or other paperwork. Because the fuel for this power plant is free and the upfront investment is fixed, the cost of electricity is stable for years to come.

To initiate a community solar project, a group of people joins together to fund a solar facility, sometimes called a solar garden. Or they simply join an existing community solar organization. While most members gain satisfaction from supporting clean energy, the financial benefits are important, too. In exchange for a small monthly fee, members enjoy lower, long-term energy costs. Utility incentives, tax credits or renewable energy credits, often help keep start up costs low. Renewable energy credits initially belong to whoever owns the solar equipment. They may retire them on behalf of community solar members or sell them to others to generate cash. It is important that the founders of the group understand the exact nature and extent of financial benefits and costs before committing to a program.

Most community solar programs link to a specific utility, so that customers can credit the renewable energy generated against their monthly bills. If a community solar member moves to another location within that utility’s service territory, they can remain a member. However, moving to a different utility might mean an end to the membership.

As of 2016, there were around 108 community solar programs in the U.S. serving 70,000 customers in 26 states. That number is expected to grow substantially. Most of these programs sell shares representing a percentage of the energy output. Members purchase a share for a period of up to 20 years.  Each month the energy from that share is credited to the member’s monthly utility bill. Most credits apply at a rate that is equal to the retail electric rate.

A database of existing community solar projects is available at Community Solar Hub. Projects are organized in different ways. They can be created by electric utilities, by existing non-profits or by new organizations created specifically for this purpose. Rural electric cooperatives are a strong force in the community solar movement with about 100 programs in 29 states.

Community solar programs offer special benefits to those with low and moderate incomes. These households spend an average of 7.2% of their income on energy compared to 2.3% for higher income families. Paying this much for energy leaves little money for other necessities. To make matters worse, low-income families are less likely to own their home. Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light offers a solar energy program targeted to low-income families, which may serve as an example for other states and cities.

Community solar installations are generally located in public spaces, but can be on private property, too. According to the U.S. EPA, solar farms offer a promising second life for retired landfill sites, abandoned mines, depleted agricultural land, and contaminated areas.

To find a community solar program near you, visit Community Solar Access (CSA). If there isn’t a program in your area, you can start one. Community Solar Hub offers resources, tools, support, and even financing for creating community solar programs. Shared Renewables HQ identifies 12 states with regulatory support for starting various kinds of renewable energy collaborations.

An entirely different model of community collaboration is group purchasing and installation of solar collectors for individual homes in a community. In this model an umbrella group negotiates favorable installation prices and sometimes finances projects. The Solarize Guidebook details select programs and identifies the keys to their success.

Community solar programs allow almost anyone to take advantage of lower cost solar energy and help us all move towards zero carbon emissions, bringing new meaning to the old saying “the sun does shine on everyone.”