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How America’s commercial property industry is facilitating a community solar revolution

A community solar project in New Jersey. Photo: Solar Landscape
A community solar project in New Jersey. Photo: Solar Landscape

For decades, the roofs of America’s malls, office blocks and warehouses have idly reflected the sun’s rays back into space. Now, the community energy movement has found a way to put them to better use.

“Putting community solar on commercial rooftops reduces burdens on the grid, accelerates the installation time, and preserves open space,” says Brendon Shank, executive vice president for engagement at Solar Landscape, an organisation that partners with real estate companies to develop energy projects on their rooftops.

Households and businesses in the surrounding communities can subscribe to those projects and receive low-cost electricity in return. Solar Landscape has deployed more than 400 megawatts of solar to date.

“For too long, we’ve been excluding millions upon millions of Americans from the benefits of solar simply because they don’t own their home, live in an apartment or condo, or don’t have the financial resources to invest in their own panels,” Shank tells The Progress Playbook. “The newest iterations of community solar — like in New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois — prioritise access for low- and moderate-income households, making it even more equitable.”

The model also gives commercial real estate owners an opportunity to create additional revenue streams, Shank says. This is “coming at an opportune time” given the impact of Covid-19 and remote work on the commercial property sector.

Further, projects are creating jobs in clean energy. “In Pennsylvania alone — where I live — a recent academic study projected community solar would create 11,000 jobs and generate $1.8 billion in economic activity.”

Yes, but: It’s early days yet, despite the industry’s rapid growth in recent years.

Environment America’s recent “solar on warehouses” report found that the rooftops of US warehouses built before 2019 have the potential to generate 185.6 terawatt-hours of solar electricity each year — enough to power almost 20 million average homes. 

Meanwhile, in early 2024, the US Department of Energy’s Jeff Marootian challenged the community solar industry to triple capacity to 20 gigawatts by the end of 2025.

The department is supporting the industry with tax credits and other measures, on the premise that community solar is “a critical tool” for achieving the government’s goal of reaching 100% clean electricity by 2035.

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