Neighbors Helping Neighbors to Pay Costs for Solar

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A North Carolina solar initiative illustrates one way neighbors are involved in helping reduce solar energy installation expenses. 

CARRBORO, N.C. — The sun shines on Carrboro about two out of every three days — an average of 218 days a year. That can mean a lot of free energy, but capturing it with solar panels of course has costs of its own.

That’s changing now as a result of lower costs for solar overall, and also through an initiative called Solarize Carrboro, led by resident Rob Pinder. He’s organizing his neighbors to go solar en masse, enabling them to get a group discount on installation costs. It’s a little like a Groupon deal for solar panels.

By helping residents access substantial state and federal tax credits, along with getting the group discount, Pinder’s initiative promises to cut the price of a solar installation for a typical Carrboro home from $19,000 to just under $7,000.

So far, 316 Carrboro residents have signed up to take the first step in the program — an assessment of their homes’ suitability for solar panels.

Carrboro, a town of about 20,000 in the shadows of the University of North Carolina, is just one of the places across the nation where neighbors are organizing group discounts on solar installations through “Solarize” initiatives.

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Pinder, scientist turned solar organizer.

The campaign started in Portland, Ore., where an initiative in 2009 signed up more than 300 residents in its first six months. The idea soon had spread to Seattle, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

When Pinder heard about other Solarize programs, he wanted his community to participate.

“I thought, all those places don’t have nearly as much sunshine as we do — we should definitely be doing this here in North Carolina,” he says.

North Carolinians have also launched Solarize initiatives in Durham, Asheville, and Chatham County, a rural county south of Carrboro.

The Scientist Turned Community Organizer

Pinder has professional reasons to take an interest in solar energy: As a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he studies climate change.

“We’ve seen in recent years the impacts of climate change on many communities in the U.S., and it’s happening now,” he says. “That, in part, motivated me … we need to start taking action now, the time to wait has passed.”

He has another motivation: a daughter, born in January.

“Now that I have a daughter, it’s a lot more tangible,” he says. “I can kind of see from her eyes what it really means to look 20 years into the future, or 50 years into the future.”

Pinder took time off from the EPA to care for his daughter, which also frees him to work on the Solarize Carrboro project as a volunteer.

How Solarize Works

Solarize projects have three goals: cut the cost of solar installations, reduce the complexity for homeowners, and get people off the couch to participate — the toughest part, Pinder says.

Solarize Carrboro used a competitive proposal process to choose a company to do installation work. Two companies, Yes! Solar Solutions and Southern Energy Management, applied as a team and won.

The companies agreed to offer tiered discounts, so that as more people sign up for Solarize Carrboro, the more money everyone in the group can save. That encouraged participants to persuade their neighbors to join, too.

Solarize Carrboro,
By the Numbers

How discounts will work for a typical Carrboro home with a 4 kW solar system.

Average retail price for installation: $19,000
Solarize Carrboro price: $15,920
N.C. tax credit: $5,572
Est. Federal tax credit: $3,350
Net cost: $6,798

Source: Solarize Carrboro

During installation, the companies will handle paperwork with local utilities, making the process less daunting for consumers. Solarize Carrboro is also connecting participants to lenders and experts on solar tax credits.

To motivate people to sign up — and quickly — Pinder set a deadline: Join us by May 30, he said, or you can’t participate.

Brian Lips is a project manager at the North Carolina Solar Center, which provided technical support to the initiative. He says other Solarize projects have served as catalysts for the solar industry.

In Portland, Solarize campaigns drove down market prices for solar installations by 30 percent and created more than 50 jobs, according to a U.S. Department of Energy guidebook.

“It’s good at galvanizing interest in a community and pushing that interest into action,” Lips says.

Selling Electricity Back to the Utility

Janet Whitesides was among the 316 Carrboro residents who signed up for Solarize Carrboro before the May 30 deadline.

Whitesides, a retiree, lives in a small home painted a cheerful shade of green. Like many of the residences in her neighborhood, once populated by workers at the nearby textile mill, her home has a garden and a tin roof.

That tin roof keeps her house cool by reflecting sunlight, she says. As she stands on a screened sun porch in the rear of her house, she gestures toward her neighbor’s roof.

“My neighbor has a black brick [roof]. This is the worst thing you can have on your house,” she says. “I haven’t turned my air conditioner on yet, and he’s been running his all May.”

To cut her electricity use, Whitesides has also installed energy-efficient windows and insulated her roof, and she often uses her microwave for cooking, because it’s more efficient than a stove.

Her electricity bill, already low, is set to drop even more once solar panels are installed on the roof above her sun porch, at an estimated cost of $3,700. She’ll receive credits for sending excess electricity back to her utility company, Duke Energy.

And for Whitesides, that’s exciting.

“I don’t believe that Duke Power has my or anybody else’s interests, really, in mind,” she says. “I think it would be great not to be dependent on them, to be selling them power. That’s worth the cost to do it.”

For his part, Pinder hopes the Solarize Carrboro initiative will change how his community perceives solar energy.

“Solar has become much more affordable, so it’s possible for average people,” he says. “It’s not just for billionaires in California or for space stations.”

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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