A Solar Co-Op May Be Your Key to Affording Power From the Sun

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What is a solar purchasing co-op and should you join one?

Maybe you’ve daydreamed about having solar panels on your roof but can’t seem to justify the steep cost. Or you’re considering an installation, but you don’t know much about how it works. Wouldn’t it be convenient to have someone to help you choose a reliable  expert contractor, and advise with negotiating all the overwhelming details? Well, you’re in luck, because residential purchasing groups are the perfect solution.

Residential purchasing groups are also known as solar co-ops, and they’re popping up all over the US. They were first introduced when homeowners in some neighborhoods realized that if they banded together and purchased solar for their homes en masse, they could probably negotiate a better price. And this collaborative idea has spread. Homeowners who join their local solar co-op may end up with solar panels that cost 20% to 30% less than the standard market rate for their system. Once federal and state tax credits kick in, the price drops even lower. Plus, some local utilities offer a rebate to customers who solarize their homes. It’s a win-win when it comes to making your system as affordable as possible.

In most co-ops, the members select a single contractor to install the type of system that will go on each house. The systems aren’t connected, and every homeowner purchases and owns an individual system. This approach benefits the contractor thanks to simple economies of scale: It’s more cost effective to install and then maintain similar systems on, say, 10 houses in a neighborhood than to configure a different system for each of those homes.

In addition to saving money, homeowners benefit by creating a “solar community” that can increase the value of their neighborhood. Plus, co-op members can become an important force for change. Once they band together to purchase solar, they’ll amass energy-savings data that can be used to persuade elected officials to continue to promote solar and other renewable energy sources locally, as well as nationally. Solar co-op members can also intercede when utilities propose rate hikes or debate whether to add solar and other renewable energy sources to the coal, oil, and nuclear power they may already be using.

If you can’t find an existing solar co-op in your neighborhood, you can start one yourself. Co-ops may function in varying ways depending on local zoning restrictions and whether they set up an actual organization or company to manage the purchase. Here are links to three different solar co-ops currently operating in the Washington metropolitan area. Any of them would be happy to share what they know so you can turn your solar dream into a reality.

New homes built with solar

West Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods (WVSUN)

There are three active solar co-ops in West Virginia—in Charleston, Morgantown, and Wheeling. Non-profit WVSUN finds the best rates for its members by contacting installers across the state and then choosing based on lowest bids. By using a single installer, the entire group gets a discounted price. The Solar Co-ops FAQs they publish on their website provides a clear and detailed  overview of their process.

Arlington Solar Co-op

This co-op is part of Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods (VASUN). In its most recent outreach effort, more than 250 neighbors signed up to go solar. In fact, there is now a waiting list for the next co-op! Arlington Solar projects that its members will save 30% off the cost of their solar systems by purchasing as a group.

Mt. Pleasant Solar Co-op

This co-op was started in northwest Washington, D.C. by a family who felt an urgent need to reduce their impact on global warming and climate change. Today, they’re an association of more than 300 households! Since 2006, they’ve installed solar panels on nearly 100 houses, which amounts to 10% of their neighborhood. They’re also sharing their model of co-op purchasing with other communities in the Washington metro area.

The Community Power Network provides organizing information and resources to help any neighborhood get a co-op off the ground. Their step-by-step action guide may be just the framework you need to help you launch a co-op in your community.


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