What’s in a name? When it comes to solar, a whole lot. In any industry, accurate use of terminology is pretty important. In the rapidly evolving and policy driven solar industry, it is especially critical. Misuse of terms can lead to confusion among current and potential solar customers and solar advocates, therefore compromising and slowing down quality development of a strong and mature industry.
We are seeing this misuse of terms and subsequent confusion today with the name “community solar.” Noting the buzzworthy-ness of the term and the warm fuzzies associated with the very idea of community solar, utilities are currently spending significant time and money in an attempt to co-opt the term for themselves as a new name for what is already known as “utility scale” solar.
In January, CEOs from major investor owned utilities around the country discussed how they could use the term “community solar” to improve their image at a board meeting of Edison Electric Institute (EEI). (EEI is a trade organization that represents this group of utilities.) Well aware that the public image of many utilities has taken a recent beating over the numerous utility-led attacks on rooftop solar and net metering policies, EEI explained the new strategy to help fix the utilities’ solar-image: work with hired consultants to help shift the public language of “utility scale solar” to the much more popular name “community solar.” You can read more about their strategy in this expose article by the Huffington Post.
All else aside, the main problem with this public relations move is that community solar and utility scale solar are two very different things. Utility scale solar is generally a large solar plant that generates electricity for a utility to then sell to its customers, just like any other power plant. The customer doesn’t do anything but use the electricity and pay their bill.
Community solar, on the other hand, involves actual investment and commitment from community members, and those community members are able to reap the benefits from the project directly. They either use the power generated themselves, get a cost-savings credit on their monthly electricity bill, or both, depending on the specific model. You can learn more about community solar on The Community Solar Hub’s website. (The site includes a pretty interesting interactive map!)
The point is, true community solar projects are driven BY THE COMMUNITY in partnership with their power company. Utility scale solar is driven BY THE UTILITY.
This is not to say or imply that utility scale solar is bad. In fact, when done in a way that is cost competitive and responsive to community needs, utility scale solar can be one of the most effective ways to provide affordable solar energy to a region. Correct terminology is a matter of accurate and transparent communications from utilities to their customers. One of the reasons that utilities have gotten a bad rap over solar in recent years is because customers have felt mislead. And customers feel their utilities prioritize profit margins, rather than prioritizing their interests. Whether this perception is true or not, utilities now have the opportunity to take a step in the right direction by refraining from co-opting inaccurate terminology and instead embracing honest communication with their customers about the best way to bring solar to them, utility scale or otherwise.