University of San Diego

San Diego Journal of Climate & Energy Law


At the outset, we should recognize the types of renewable energy that are best suited for community-scale facilities. A broad, and commonly accepted, definition of renewable energy comes from the Energy Information Administration, which includes all resources that “are naturally replenishing but flow-limited,” including “biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action, and tidal action.” Of these types of renewable energy, solar and wind have the highest potential for community-scale implementation. Indeed, these have tended to dominate the community-scale renewable projects already in place. Moreover, states commonly subsidize both large-scale and individual-scale solar and wind developments; these subsidies may also be used as is, or restructured, to support community-scale projects.

We further narrow the scope of our discussion of community-scale renewables based on the collective ownership and operation of the equipment, the size of the generation equipment, and the arrangement of the equipment to create a common energy source.

First, to be “community-scale” energy, the generation must be managed, or the generation project must at least be instigated by, a community: an organized group of residents and/or business owners must be involved in some of the stages of land use planning, acquisition, and installation of renewable equipment, maintenance and operation of this equipment, and the sale of energy—either electricity or heat—from it. With respect to size, we include projects between the sizes of roughly fifty kilowatts to one megawatt: substantially less generation than utility-scale installations, yet substantially more generation than would be used by the typical single end user, while still being able to be located on several acres or fewer.

Finally, we limit projects to those with a common source of generation, meaning that the physical array must be somehow connected both to a central power distribution node and to individual end users: solar panels or small- to medium-sized wind turbines could be installed on separate properties and sent to a common transformer, or the equipment could be constructed within a common area, such as a public park.