Much has been made about the energy sector’s convulsive shift of late, with Akron’s FirstEnergy practically begging state and federal authorities to regulate it again and save its bankrupt power generation arm, First Energy Solutions, which went all in on out-of-favor sources (coal and nuclear) when its competitors were sprinting toward cheaper or more socially desirable options (fracking gas and wind power).
But, a reliable energy grid is something that should be desired by all; the diversification of sources should be a national security and an environmental and economic priority.
For decades, since President Jimmy Carter bolted a solar panel on the roof of The White House, the U.S has played around with the idea that energy from the sun can be converted to electrons that power our lives. Today, solar is more affordable and more market ready, thanks in part to a generation raised with looming thoughts of climate change, and an increase in manufacturing worldwide. The difference between the Earth Day generation and Gen X and Millennials is not so much the willingness, but market demand has produced more options.
Take Solar United Neighbors, a not-for-profit group that was started by a single mom in Washington, D.C. and has since branched out to eight states and sub-markets, including Cleveland. Their mission is to help area homeowners install solar on residential rooftops. They help form co-ops, or groups of potential buyers, assess each individual’s solar generation potential and then help negotiate a better deal with an installer.
We caught up with Luke Sulfridge, program director for OH Sun, Solar United’s statewide branch, about the solar co-op program in partnership with Cuyahoga County that led to 32 homeowners in the area buying and installing solar panels together last year. Earlier this year, they opened their second round, and demand has been so strong that they’ve divided their second offering into two groups. An installer for 100 homes to be outfitted with solar panels was selected in February, and they are in the midst of a second offering that they hope to close this month.
“I think were seeing interest globally, but also folks in Northeast Ohio are eager to see how they can control their energy supply,” said Sulfridge. In two years, OH Sun has overseen 1.2 megawatts of solar power installed across the state at an average cost to install of $2.75 per watt, which Sulfridge assures is below average for the consumer on the open market.
The appeal, he says, is the combination of self-guidance backed by impartial technical support. OH Sun is there to trouble shooting and negotiate, and in exchange they do receive a referral fee from the contractor. In a kitchen table conversation, co-op members — homeowners — looked through 150 proposals during the first Cuyahoga offering and, in one night, selected their installer.
“Cuyahoga wanted to form a co-op with employees,” Sulfridge explains. “In Dayton, we partnered with the city. Southeast Ohio did a multi-county non-profit model. We’ve had a market with one faith group leading it. Our first co-op was in Oberlin, and it was a citizen-led effort. In Delaware, members spread the word — they had a Girl Scout group that knocked on a hundred doors, bringing word that solar is affordable.”
Just how affordable depends to some degree on how much sun your rooftop can capture. Cuyahoga County Sustainability Director, Mike Foley, is not only a business partner but also a customer of OH Sun. He said the 9 year pay off for a $10,000 solar panel system on his home made it a ‘go’ in part because it can generate 40% of his family’s power needs. Free electricity after year ten, Foley said, helps justify the loan for the system, which came through the County’s HELP program, which underwrites the conventional loan for any resident of the county with a more favorable interest rate.
“I’m thrilled with (OH Sun),” he said, “they are an honest broker and are installer neutral. We got informed about solar on a really deep level.” When it came time for 32 households to make their bulk solar buy, a $500,000 investment, the group saved an estimated $100,000.
It helps that a federal tax credit reduces the first cost by 30%. But Ohio’s freeze of its renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) has decimated the other incentive that makes solar more affordable.
“Michigan just increased their RPS, while, in Ohio, there’s legislation to make it voluntary,” Foley, a former State Representative, said. “This stuff is not going to go away. Ohio is a top five user of electricity and it’s dirty for the most part, so we have a greater obligation.”
For more information about the current and future rounds of residential solar co-ops, log on here.