Here comes the SUN: Residents coordinate bulk solar installations

March 15, 2014

A local group is offering Hyattsville residents the chance to purchase solar energy in bulk. File photo.

BY CAROLINE SELLE — There may soon be an influx of solar panels onto Hyattsville roofs. Nearly 40 people came to a February 6 workshop sponsored by the Hyattsville Preservation Association (HPA) to learn more about buying solar energy in bulk from the Maryland Solar United Neighborhoods (MD SUN). After a strong showing of interest, MD SUN is now coordinating a bulk purchase for the city.

MD SUN is one of a group of affiliated mid-Atlantic nonprofits working to install solar in local neighborhoods. It’s a subset of the Community Power Network, a nonprofit begun by Mount Pleasant resident Anya Schoolman after her son and his friend watched the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and wanted to take action against climate change by installing their own solar panels.

Schoolman began to do the research and quickly realized the amount of work involved. “I said look, if we’re going to do this we might as well do it for the whole neighborhood. It’s too much work for just one family.” She founded the Mount Pleasant Solar Coop, DC SUN, and, eventually, the Community Power Network, the current parent group.

A handout at the HPA meeting compared this buying strategy to shopping at Costco: “By going solar as a group, we can save on the total cost of installation.” Typically, participants save between 20 and 30 percent of the cost of installing a system on their own. Residents also avoid the headache of vetting contractors and navigating the tangle of cost estimates, including  factoring in solar renewable energy credits and the estimated energy savings for each year a system is involved.

At the meeting, Schoolman went over the typical costs of a solar system, which can cost as little as $18,000 before tax credits and other discounts and only a few thousand dollars after. She also addressed community members’ questions, which ranged from the specifics of tax credits to the possibility of solar thermal systems, which MD SUN does not help install.

Will Parkhurst, one of several Hyattsville residents at the workshop, already has solar panels on his home. He leases them from energy provider SolarCity.

“I was just curious about what was going to be discussed, and I thought that I might talk to a couple people about my experience with SolarCity,” Parkhurst said.

Though supportive of the bulk purchase, he suggests that those without the upfront cash required for purchasing solar panels try a leasing system.

“We’re saving money for improvements on the house itself,” he said, so owning the solar system wasn’t a priority. “Our main goal was to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and our secondary goal was to save a little money.”

MD SUN has the purchasing process streamlined. “We wait for the community to invite us in,” said Schoolman, since the process works best when led by community members. Then, after an outreach event like the HPA meeting, interested parties sign up for more information.

Next, the group conducts a preliminary screening of roofs through Google Earth. Factors like shade, slope  and size determine how big the system would be. After 20 people are signed up and screened, MD SUN requests proposals from local solar installers. Installers provide a single price for the entire group, which residents then review through a self-created selection committee.

The committee selects one installer to complete all of the group’s solar projects, and then the installer meets with each participant and begins to provide individualized proposals customized to each specific roof. No money is due until participants sign their individual contracts.

The whole process, said Schoolman, can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Right now, the Hyattsville group is in the outreach and signup process.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in the Hyattsville group” said Emily Stiever, program director for the Community Power Network. “I think if we have five more people sign up, we’ll have enough to go forward.”

For more information, visit www.mdsun.org/solar-bulk-purchases or contact hyattsville@mdsun.org. MD SUN is also coordinating a bulk purchase through the Sustainability Office of the University of Maryland.