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Solar Co-ops Spread Across Virginia

The nonprofit group VA SUN is helping Virginians across the state convert to solar power. They’re using a co-op model that brings residents together to bargain for competitive prices and advocate for clean energy. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more.

Trancript:

At the Glen Allen Library, Aaron Sutch welcomes people to a solar co-op info session. The room fills up quickly and Sutch gets things started.

Aaron Sutch: I’m going to go ahead and get into the Solar 101 aspect of things....

Sutch is the program director for VA SUN, part of the larger non-profit Community Power Network. Back in 2007, the group’s founder Anya Schoolman wanted to get solar for her rowhouse in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC. The process was confusing and expensive.

Sutch: She thought that she was being smart in saying, if we’re going to do this and it’s so challenging, let’s take the whole neighborhood solar. And in short, after two years, that’s kind of what she did, she took 45 of her neighborhood residents solar as a group as part of the Mt. Pleasant Solar Co-op.

Because of the group’s collective buying power, they were able to negotiate a sizable discount with the solar installer. The model spread throughout DC, then to Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.

Sutch: Since 2014, we’ve helped more than 270 homeowners go solar, did about 1.8 megawatts of residential installed capacity, and we estimate about a 15% of resident install capacity in Virginia was thanks to our solarize projects.

Their first solar co-op was in Blacksburg, others came together in Virginia Beach, Halifax, South Central...

Sutch: Harrisonburg has been our biggest one and we’re doing a second round of that. We’ve worked in Floyd, Augusta County, Rappahannock County, and we’re exploring a few other options. So we’ve worked pretty much throughout the state, Arlington and greater Northern Virginia as well.

The co-op model works like this: VA SUN reviews your roof using digital tools to see if it’s a good fit for solar. When they get a critical mass of 20-30 suitable roofs in an area, VA SUN submits a Request for Proposals. A committee of co-op members reviews the bids and after an installer is selected, each property gets a site visit and individual contracts are drawn up.

Sutch: Every solar system is a customized system, meaning no two homes are exactly alike, so they can have a larger or a smaller system, one with batteries or a ground mount, one with maybe American-made panels or real base panels so there’s all those options, but it all comes in at the group pricing.

Generally the discount is about 10-20%. Until you sign the contract with the installer, Sutch says there’s no binding agreements.

Sutch: We facilitate it, but really the co-ops themselves are very stakeholder driven and take on the flavor of a community. So the community members are the ones that actually select the installer, they will help other people share their story and at end we have a big celebration party and we found that people, after being a part of the co-op, feel empowered to help other in their community go solar and be a resource.

Sekar Veerappan helped initiate the Richmond solar coop after learning about efforts in other cities. He took on the role of a community partner, getting the word out through colleagues, friends and social circles. In the backyard of his two storey colonial, Veerappan points out where his system will go.

Sekar Veerappan: There is some shade, I may have to trim some of these trees.

Veerappan is planning for 32 panels, about 8 1/2 kilowatts.

Veerappan: That takes care of 100% of my electricity.

Veerappan spent his career as a mechanical engineer in the energy industry, mostly doing work for oil, coal and gas companies. But the 2008/2009 recession pushed him toward renewables and he now consults on solar projects. Getting a solar system at home is another way Veerappan wants to make an impact.

Veerappan: As an individual, as a responsible citizen, I want to reduce how much I put into the atmosphere, that’s the main goal, to reduce the carbon footprint.

Back at the meeting, Jon Baker says he has similiar reasons for choosing solar. The VCU Chemistry Professor says on the very first Earth Day in 1970, he walked to school rather than get a ride.

Jon Baker: So somehow that’s just always been a part of my makeup, I do what I can, I haven’t thrown away an aluminum can in 25 years.

In 2014, Baker was all ready to go with a solar system on his home in Richmond’s Oregon Hill. Then he found out his rafters wouldn’t support the panels. So after three decades, he went house hunting.

Baker: It was hard to find a solar-ready existing home, I can say that. It eliminated about 90% of houses on the market, because of shade issues, construction, the house turned the wrong way, no southern exposure. Hopefully we’ll start building, maybe not code, maybe not codify it, but at least have it part of the thinking for developers that a lot of people are going to want to do this and build houses that have that option either while they’re being built or an option for a buyer later on.

Baker eventually found a suitable home and is all ready to heat his new pool using the sun’s rays. Some homeowners also run into hurdles with HOAs, which often have restrictions and must approve changes to the exterior of a house. Aaron Sutch is upfront about challenges like that, as well as costs. He says the average return on investment is 9-12 years and system prices range from $9,000 to $40,000. A federal tax credit helps reduce that cost and a number of states offer incentives too, though currently not Virginia. The democratization of energy is spreading, says Sutch, despite push-back from the conventional energy industry.

Sutch: In 10 years, we would like to help facilitate about 30% of our state’s energy coming from distributed solar generation and that’s a long term, very ambitious goal, we see it as achievable,  we see it as a way to really count on this momentum we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is non-partisan people, it’s no longer a partisan political issue, we’re seeing folks on both sides of the aisle really come together. So we’re exciting about helping to facilitate that, grow jobs, help ensure that the grid is more resilient in the face of natural disasters but most of all just help people harness a local source of energy that’s going to empower them and their communities.

The solar co-op in greater Richmond has more than 40 properties so far. They’ve issued an RFP and within a few months, more homeowners will be watching their meters run backwards. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Community Power Network began in 1997. The audio and text have been updated to reflect the correct date, 2007.