Want to go solar? One resident examines the options
On February 15th, 2016, fellow co-op members Thomas Wellems and Marilyn Powell (pictured in the image above) became the 27th household of the Rockville Solar Co-op to see electricity generated from the sun via rooftop solar panels powering their home. Since then 10 members have also been connected, and others are in the queue for panel installation and grid hookup. When all 63 active members are connected, the co-op will be harnessing the sun with 442 kilowatts (kW) of solar power capacity.
What is a solar co-op?
Solar co-ops are groups of interested residents and businesses that use their collective buying power to lower the cost of solar panel equipment and installation. Joining a solar co-op reduces the cost by having one installer purchase all of the equipment and perform all of the installations (the Rockville co-op used two). Additionally, organizations like MD SUN can assist with the co-op with additional benefits such as having expert guidance through the process, advice from current solar homeowners, and participation in selection of the group’s vendor or vendors.
The Rockville co-op, which began in April 2015, is the largest and most successful of its kind so far in Maryland. It includes members who are interested in having their homes powered by solar energy but are still considering the best way to do that. Our family falls into that category. We’ve switched a lot of our previous gas consumption to electric by having a geoexchange (geothermal) system installed to provide heating and cooling, using an electric mower, and leasing a LEAF electric vehicle. It would be great to have all this powered straight from the sun. What are our options?
Option #1: Own
Pay to have solar panels that we will own installed on the roof (or elsewhere on the property).
Option #2: Lease
Have a company install solar panels on our roof, via a power purchase agreement, that we would host in exchange for a set, reliable electricity rate, but not own.
Option #3: Community solar
Put no solar panels on our own roof/property, but sun-power our house by joining a community solar block. This will allow us to gain the benefits of solar without installing panels.
Examining the options
Because our house is reasonably suitable for solar (facing mostly east and a little south – with completely south-facing being the ideal), and because we’re not exactly sure how long we’ll remain in this house, option #1 or #3 appear to be our best choices. However, leasing solar panels may be a viable option for other homeowners.
Using information gleaned mostly from the informative and active MD-SUN email group (thanks especially to MD-SUN Program Director Corey Ramsden, and to all the other members of various area co-ops who have shared so much useful information), these are my thoughts about options currently available to us and other Montgomery County homeowners:
Solar panels that are owned by the homeowner have been shown to increase the home’s value. The upfront cost of installation is mitigated by a 30% federal tax credit (which will now extend through 2019 and then decline gradually to 10 percent by 2022), a $1,000 Maryland Residential Clean Energy Grant, and by selling SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) based on the amount of energy the panels produce. There has been much discussion on the MD-SUN list about how best to go about selling SRECs, with the consensus appearing to be that you’re probably best going with a broker. Here’s more information about how to sell your SRECs.
Our main obstacle to putting solar panels on our roof has been the additional cost of having to remove a large (but dying) tree and replace the aging roof on our house first. For us and anyone with similar issues of affordability or solar suitability, there is now the option of community solar.
We ruled out option #2 because leasing panels and entering into a power purchase agreement (read about the differences between those here) make the most sense for homeowners who want to eliminate the upfront cost of installation AND who will be in their homes for at least 5 years after installation (at which point the system may often be purchased from the installing company, depending on the terms of your contract).
While leasing/PPAs allow you to host solar panels and lock in a consistent electricity rate over time with the solar panel company, selling your house while a lease or PPA is in effect can prove difficult, for reasons outlined in this November 2015 Washington Post article.
A three-year pilot program for community solar was signed into law in Maryland in May 2015, and draft regulations have recently been published that will soon make the program a reality. With community solar, individuals (subscribers) who sign up to buy the energy from a portion of a block of solar panels installed by a local business or community group receive s credit on their utility bill for the amount of power their portion of the block generated.
Policies that define how it will operate are still being developed, but it looks very promising, with 30% of capacity set aside for low and moderate income subscribers, full retail credit (same economic benefits as for traditional net metering customers ), and incentive for development at brownfield sites.
We’ll be on the lookout in coming months to see what organizations like Neighborhood Sun offer, and whether community solar or solar panels on our own house make more sense, especially if another solar co-op comes to Montgomery County in 2016. We are grateful to live in a city and state where great incentives are offered to encourage residents to use renewable energy.
Guest blog by Helen Triolo. Helen has lived in Rockville for 25 years, and has served on the Rockville Environment Commission since 2015. She and her family continue to work on making their home more energy efficient and their lives less fossil fuel dependent.