Often, when you think of solar power, you probably think about utility scale solar plants or solar power generated on a home or building.  But have you heard about community solar, or what may be referred to as a solar garden?  Like a community garden, solar gardens are popping up as an alternative to provide green energy to people and businesses who can’t (or won’t) generate solar power on site.

With solar gardens, generally speaking, retail consumers purchase a “subscription” or a share of solar power generated at the garden, and that amount somehow gets credited against the purchasers electricity bill.  Often there’s a geographic disconnect between the garden and subscriber, though the two may need to be in the same county.

Specifics of project construction, ownership, maintenance, subscriptions, sizing, and financing tend to flesh out at the state level, where community solar policy can affect how these projects work.

For example, in Colorado, House Bill 10-1342 [PDF] authorizing the creation of community solar gardens, is waiting the governor’s signature.  According to the bill, the solar garden must have a nameplate rating of less than two megawatts and at least 10 subscribers.  The solar garden can be owned by a qualifying retail utility or any other for-profit or non-profit entity and is considered retail distributed generation.

The benefits of solar gardens could be unparalleled.  For those that don’t have the time or inclination, community solar provides a no-fuss, low-involvement opportunity to source green energy.

Community solar gardens might also benefit renters with no rooftop space, individuals lacking in credit sufficient to purchase an entire system, homeowners in aesthetically restricted communities, or anyone else that doesn’t get a solid ray of sunshine on their roof.

But there may be drawbacks, too.  A proliferation of non-rooftop projects could lead to something called “energy sprawl,” a concept I first read about over at Clean Energy Wonk by Tom Konrad.  Energy sprawl is exactly what you think it is.  New land is eaten up – as opposed to using otherwise unused rooftops and parking lot structures – to generate power from these mini power plants.

Another concern I’ve read about relates to how these projects might affect small businesses.  If the assumption is that the pie is limited, I guess it’s conceivable that bigger players with scale could overpower smaller players.  Such is business, though.

Suffice it to say, the kinks are all being worked out.  Expect to see variations in your community for the time being.  In the mean time, keep your eyes open for the nearest solar garden.

Media credit: Solar 4 R Schools (pictured is a sprawling 57 kW solar electric system in Ellensburg, Washington, which is regarded as the first community solar project in the nation).