“With community solar, you subscribe to a share of a large solar project nearby. By subscribing, you get a portion of the solar energy as a discount on your electric bill without the cost or effort of installing solar panels on your own roof.”

Gov. Hochul’s Office

Solar panels on the roof of the Javits Center in Manhattan.

Your electricity bills will be around 22 percent higher this winter, warned Con Edison in a September email to customers in New York City. Con Edison’s list of money-saving tips failed to mention one option that allows any New Yorker to save money: signing up for community solar. With community solar, you subscribe to a share of a large solar project nearby. By subscribing, you get a portion of the solar energy as a discount on your electric bill without the cost or effort of installing solar panels on your own roof.

Even without an international crisis, electricity bills go up every winter due to the cold weather. But last winter was particularly expensive because the pandemic disrupted America’s energy supply. Demand decreased early in the pandemic because we were traveling less, and economic activity slowed down. As the pandemic eased, demand increased, and the energy supply could not keep up, leading to shortages and higher prices. The increased price led to 280,000 families in New York City receiving a letter in March telling them that their electricity was about to be cut off, which is double the normal amount.

This winter will be worse. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused even more disruption to global energy supplies, which is why everyone, from the electricity companies to New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul, is warning of more expensive bills this winter.

Most New Yorkers can do little about increasing energy prices. In Con Edison’s September email they told us to turn down thermostats and to insulate. But anyone struggling to pay their bills already knows to minimize heating, and the 70 percent of New Yorkers who rent their homes are not able to install insulation themselves.

Although my bill doubled between December and January last winter, I saved $75 that month because I own my home and had installed solar panels on my roof. However, most New Yorkers are not able to install solar, whether because they rent their home, because it would require approval of a co-op or condo board, or because their roof is unsuitable. 

To address the limitations of residential rooftop solar, New York State has developed the country’s leading community solar program. Anyone with an electrical bill can sign up for a share of a large solar project nearby. Recent community solar projects include the roofs of a warehouse at JFK airport, public housing in southern Brooklyn, and a mall in Yonkers. The solar energy from each project is fed into Con Edison’s electrical grid, and electricity is supplied to customers in the normal way.

Each month, all the energy generated by each community solar project is tracked, and an equivalent credit is applied to each member’s Con Edison bill. Members then receive a second bill from the community solar provider for the credited amount minus a saving, which is typically 10 percent. So, if a project with 100 members generates $10,000 worth of electricity in June, then each member will get a $100 credit on their Con Edison bill, and a separate bill for $90 for the community solar, saving $10 that month. Signing up does not cost anything, and typically can be canceled with 90 days’ notice.

Signing up for community solar has an impact: these solar projects would not be built without members. In 2022, New York State became the leader in community solar in the United States, with over one gigawatt installed, enough for 209,000 homes. Around 12,000 jobs in the state are supported by the solar industry.

This impact contrasts with signing up for a “green” energy supplier. In New York, you can choose from over 100 different energy service companies (ESCOs) to supply your electricity. You still get your bill from Con Edison, and you pay Con Edison a fee for delivery, but your electricity is supplied by the ESCO you select. 

“Green” ESCOs typically buy renewable energy credits from large wind farms in distant states like Texas. For a few dollars extra each year, an ESCO can say that they are providing green electricity, but the amount paid to the wind farm is negligible: no new wind projects are being built because of this revenue, and no jobs are created. When signing up for a green ESCO you are still getting the same electricity supply as all of your neighbors, 89 percent of which comes from fossil fuel power plants for downstate New York, according to the latest report from the Independent System Operator. 

With community solar you still receive the same electricity supply as your neighbors, but in this case you and your neighbors will have a little more solar in the mix thanks to your membership in a local community solar project.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will worsen the seasonal problem of expensive electricity bills, but if you sign up for community solar now, then you will be as prepared as a New Yorker can be. You will save on your electricity bills, create local jobs, and will help move our energy grid from fossil fuels to renewable energy. You can find a local project to join using the state’s community solar website.

Thomas Turnbull is a student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.