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Going Solar Isn’t Easy, But New Energy Co-op Wants To Help Local Residents Make The Switch

Stephan Savoia
In this May 8, 2009, file photo, solar energy panels are mounted on the roofs of a Marshfield, Mass., house and garage.

The idea of switching to solar power can feel intimidating, given high upfront costs and possible confusion about how the technology works and how reliable it is. But community groups in Etna, Millvale, and Sharpsburg hope to ease the transition by launching a solar energy purchasing cooperative.

With the guidance of the national nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, or SUN, the Triboro Solar Co-op just launched last week and is recruiting local homeowners and businesses to participate. Membership is free, and if the co-op gets big enough, participants can purchase their own solar installations at a lower group rate.

The co-op “helps people through [the] process of selecting an installer, signing a contract with them, and getting the installation done,” said Henry McKay, SUN’s Pennsylvania program director.

McKay said his organization also assists co-op members following installation. “We help them get the most out of the solar installation, and we help them deal with technical issues that may arise a few years down the line,” he said.

McKay noted that, with more members, co-ops gain leverage with potential suppliers.

“We’ll start the process of helping the members pick a solar installer when we get about 20 members in the group,” he said. “But usually we want to get it up to more like 50 or more members to really get critical mass.”

Doubts about solar’s reliability in cloudy areas like Pittsburgh could discourage some from joining, McKay said.

But he countered, “We have more than enough sun to make it work. And crucially, we have a statewide policy called ‘net metering,’” which allows solar owners to sell excess energy to their electric utility during sunny periods. In exchange, they receive credits that they can use to buy energy from the utility when there’s not enough sunshine.

SUN has supported more than a dozen co-ops in western Pennsylvania, including two in Allegheny County, according to McKay. He said those two co-ops each attracted about 60 members countywide, with seven to 10 ultimately choosing to install solar systems each time. (Participants are not required to commit to purchasing a system.)

McKay said SUN’s most successful co-op in Pennsylvania was in Indiana County, where 20 of 90 members ended up going solar. Local governments in the area helped to generate enthusiasm about the idea, McKay said.

SUN estimates that it usually costs between $7,500 and $20,000 to install solar panels on a single property, depending on how the purchase is financed. Those estimates include a 26% federal tax credit. But SUN says that property owners can eventually turn a profit by reducing their monthly energy payments.

“A typical solar installation in western Pennsylvania [will] take the homeowner somewhere between eight and 12 years to break even – to save in energy savings what they spent going solar,” McKay said.

“That solar installation lasts 25, 30 years,” he added. “So there's this long period where [owners are] basically getting free energy: They've paid off their system and they're having all these energy savings. So a typical mid-size array might save someone $15,000, $16,000 on net over the life of the system.”

Co-op participants purchase panels after a panel of volunteer members conduct a bidding process to choose a provider.

Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization executive director Brittany Reno said the new Triboro Solar Co-op could help communities along the Allegheny River to take more action to reduce carbon emissions.

“We are classic Pittsburgh towns that benefited greatly from industry, but also have some lingering negative impacts from that industry,” Reno said. “And you pair that with our geography – we’re a river town, so we are literally sitting in valleys generally downwind from industrial polluters. [And] we also have Route 28 and busy main thoroughfares, plus the railroad coming through town. So it's a potent combination.”

Having completed a two-year “community vision plan” process, Reno added, “We know that people are interested in improving our communities’ environmental performance, their own households’ environmental performance.”

And she said, with the new co-op, “We just want to get the word out so that people understand that this is a no-risk way to learn more about solar energy and how it can work for your home, how much it would cost, how much it would generate, what the break-even point would be.”

Reno said co-op organizers are also searching for “creative ways” beyond federal tax credits to help prospective buyers afford solar panels.

In addition to SUN, Reno’s organization has partnered with the borough of Etna, the Millvale Community Development Corporation, and the Triboro Ecodistrict – New Sun Rising to form the new co-op. The groups indicated in a statement that they will eventually welcome members from beyond Etna, Millvale, and Sharpsburg.

SUN’s website says there are five months left to join the project. The nonprofit will host three virtual information sessions in March.