Who Says Solar Energy Doesn't Make Sense in Virginia?
‘Solarize’ Virginia coops demonstrating the broadening appeal of rooftop solar through bulk purchasing networks
Virginia may be one of the last markets that leading solar installers would look to enter but that isn’t stopping local community initiatives from organizing bulk purchases of rooftop systems to lower their costs and build awareness of solar as a home energy option.
With guidance from the Community Power Network, local and regional, non-profit, “Solarize” groups have formed, or are forming, throughout Virginia. The latest tally includes initiatives in Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Floyd, Harrisonburg, Leesburg, Richmond, Roanoke and two separate campaigns throughout Northern Virginia.
Solar energy in Virginia remains a niche business for companies tapped by homeowners and businesses committed to reducing their carbon footprint and supplying a portion of their own power while minimizing the risks of electricity price increases. Even with the currently available 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit, net metering for any excess generation and the ability to sell renewable energy credits in Pennsylvania, the ‘math’ for a typical home solar system puts the payback out about 12 years.
There is another dynamic in play which does not show up as clearly in states where solar makes a lot more sense economically: the desire to be part of a like-minded community and share the learning experience of buying into a much-talked about technology that can scale to help reduce reliance on fossil fuel. Don’t discount the bragging rights from one’s rooftop.
“People like to be part of something positive,” said Aaron Sutch, Program Director of VA SUN (Solar United Neighborhoods), an offshoot of the Community Power Network founded by Anya Schoolman in Washington, DC. “The social aspect of participating as a community in a technology that enables self-reliance while helping the environment is a real driver.”
Schoolman, who has facilitated the purchase of more than 300 home solar systems through DC SUN in the District of Columbia where she lives, recently was honored at the White House as a “Solar Champion of Change” . There are also SUN networks in Maryland and West Virginia.
Each of the Solarize initiatives in Virginia is operated by VA SUN or with a local partner organization.
- Sutch at the Community Power Network is organizing the Solarize Harrisonburg initiative.
- Community Housing Partners, a developer of affordable multifamily housing in western Virginia, is managing Solarize Blacksburg and Solarize Roanoke. Mason Cavell is the contact.
- In the state capital, it’s the Richmond Regional Energy Alliance run by Bill Greenleaf, a former Chief Operating Officer of a sustainable design and consulting firm;
- In rural western Virginia, Solarize Floyd is operated by Billy Weitzenfeld, a leader of the Association of Energy Conservation Professionals;
- In Charlottesville, the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) headed by Cynthia Adams, is coordinating SolarizeC'ville activities coordinated by its Solar Program Manager Jon Proffitt. LEAP is launching Solarize Leesburg in late September / October and plans to do the same elsewhere in Northern Virginia in 2015;
- Even the Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light non-profit has tossed its hat into the ring with the Northern Virginia Interfaith Solar Coop. Joelle Novey is the contact.
“The foundation of these programs is community engagement,” said LEAP’s Proffitt. “As more community members become involved in installing solar systems, the installers are able to lower their prices. This is a result of bulk purchasing, offset marketing expenses, reduced travel expenses, and the guarantee that solar installation crews will be kept busy.”
“There are thousands of people in Virginia who would love to go solar,” said Interfaith Solar Coop’s Novey.” There is a lot of pent-up demand. With this program, they don’t have to wait for the political culture to change. They are excited about the impact they can have.”
Although the process varies, here essentially is how the seed is planted and the solar coop evolves (see accompanying infographic):
- Publicity and social media blitz draw attention to an information session, coordinated with public officials if possible.
- Interested homeowners attend the session or workshop(s) ; if interested they join the coop.
- Having performed the basic math, serious homeowners with unfettered access to the sun from south-facing roofs sign up to have their rooftops assessed.
- if the coop organizer has not done so already, the coop issues a request for proposal (RFP) to area solar installers. A committee of homeowners reviews responses and selects a company willing to discount its work for access to typically 40+ prospects signed up through the coop. Go here for the RFP issued last week for the Solarize Harrisonburg RFP.
- Once the solar installer is selected at a price per kilowatt to be installed, the coop re-opens briefly for any latecomers.
- Each homeowner gets an individualized proposal and has 30 days to decide whether to make the investment.
- If needed, financing may be available through local lenders.
- A contract is signed and the system is installed. The whole process typically spans 3-4 months weather permitting.
Initiatives in Virginia To Date
Info Session / Workshop Attendees (approx.)
Homeowners Requesting Solar Assessment (approx.) *
Kilowatts (kWs) Installed or Contracted For
Interfaith Northern Virginia
Due to launch by October 2014
Solarize NOVA (No. Virginia)
Due to launch in 2015
*Site assessments can be done via the Internet using Google’s satellite imaging and other software.
As a career-long advocate for cleaner, safer and more secure energy solutions, Jim creates and helps execute digital campaigns for a variety of trade association/NGO, government agency, smart grid, renewable energy and utility clients through Pierobon & Partners. He provides updates on these columns at TheEnergyFix.com. Among other positions, he has co-managed the energy and environmental ...
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