Increasing Transparency of the Solar Garden Process: The Top 4 Questions You Should Ask When Considering Participation in a Solar Garden

Community solar gardens are an emerging and an innovative approach to acquiring renewable energy. Many of our clients are asking us about the risks and benefits of participation, with an emphasis on understanding potential impacts on their financial bottom line and the ability to meet community sustainability and energy goals. We invite you to read our take on this process and use this information to guide conversations with your solar garden developer or utility company representative.

To learn more or receive an analysis specific to your organization contact us at or

What are solar gardens? Solar gardens consist of a large number of solar panels connected as an array and located on a large parcel of land. Government agencies, businesses, non-profits, and residences can buy a select number of solar panels from an array or purchase electricity generated by a select number of solar panels and receive credit, as utility incentives, on their electricity bills for the electrons that they own.

Why solar gardens?  As we all know, solar energy provides numerous environmental and financial benefits. There are a variety of mechanisms in which an organization or individual can acquire solar energy, and solar gardens are just one of the many options. Solar gardens make sense for entities that are unable or not prepared to host or own a system on their building’s roof or adjacent to their property.

Solar garden arrangements provide unique benefits including established operation and maintenance practices administered by a third party, the potential to avoid land management issues, the ability to transfer renewable energy to different premise locations, and ideal placement that can maximize the production output.

Understanding the risks and opportunities. As with any project, sustainable or otherwise, we recommend that you have a solid understanding of the risks and opportunities. To aid you in that analysis we have crafted four questions that we suggest you discuss with your solar garden developer, utility company, and/or a neutral third-party consultant before you sign a contract (usually 20 years).

1.     What is the role of REC payments and how will REC payments influence my sustainability and renewable energy goals?

2.     What reduction in electricity use and electricity costs could I expect to see on my bill?

3.     How are changes in electricity rates determined and how could future electricity rates impact my payback period and potential long-term savings?

4.     How are changes in future utility incentives determined and how could future utility incentives impact my payback period and potential long-term savings?

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 What you can do. There are several approaches that you can take to better inform and prepare yourself before committing a solar garden membership:

  • Understand your motivation for participating and make sure it aligns with your sustainability and energy goals.
  • Discuss the questions listed above with your solar garden developer and utility company representative.
  • Clearly understand your project proposal and all contract language.
  • Conduct a utility bill analysis to better understand your utility rates and potential for change.
  • Model your risk and various “what-if” scenarios.

We are available to conduct a neutral third-party technical analysis of your project proposal and we can help you evaluate the potential opportunities, risks, and various “what-if” scenarios for your solar garden project. For more information please contact us or


Join us for our next webinar titled, “How to Set Effective and Measurable Sustainability Goals” on July 30th, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. MDT. To register please visit

 This webinar is part of a series that discusses emerging topics in the sustainability and energy fields based on real-world consulting experience.



Emily Artale, PE, CEM, LEED AP is Principal and Owner at Lotus Engineering and Sustainability, LLC, She has been working in the industry for nearly a decade and she has a background in energy management, sustainability planning, and water quality. Emily helps teams develop action-oriented solutions that will improve efficiency and integrate sustainability into current processes. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is a Colorado native and spends most of her time outdoors with her family.


Hillary Dobos is Principal and Owner of Merrill Group, LLC, Hillary brings both expertise and creative thinking to working with clients which she draws from her experience as a consultant advising public and private clients throughout the United States, as well as the one tasked with embedding sustainability throughout a 25,000+ person organization (Colorado State Government). Hillary earned her B.A. in Art History and Economics from Bowdoin College in Maine and her MBA from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Hillary was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she currently enjoys life with her husband, son, and moderately trained canine, Mr. Smiles.


Disclaimer: The information presented above is based on the opinions and experience of the authors. Additional information could become available from the solar garden developer and/or utility company that could impact the statements made above.