Going solar together

Though there’s always that initial investment, going solar can be a profitable way to save the planet. Though there’s always that initial investment, going solar can be a profitable way to save the planet.

A new co-op opportunity in Charlottesville aims to help area home and business owners save money on solar panels and electric vehicle chargers by bulk purchasing the equipment.

Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit headquartered in D.C., has developed similar co-ops in multiple states, including Virginia, to help neighbors save on solar while building a community of solar supporters.

“Rather than recruit a large number of participants that are less engaged, we focus on recruiting a smaller, more engaged group by forming a solar co-op,” says Aaron Sutch, the Virginia program director.

It starts with interest. After prospective participants sign up online, the Solar United Neighbors team will screen each person’s roof via Google Earth and Bing Maps to make sure their structures are fit for solar. Then the team issues a request for proposals from local solar installers to provide a base price for the entire group.

About 25 folks went to a local information session in March, and 20 have already signed up, according to Sutch. The group wants to recruit about 10 more people, he says, and then they’ll be ready to issue the RFP for installers, which will likely happen in mid-May. The absolute deadline to sign up is August 31.

Next, a committee of participants will review the bids and select one installer to complete all of the projects for the group. The installer will meet with participants to provide individualized proposals that list the size and cost of each solar system (with a group discount), and those who choose to move forward will then sign an official contract.

Sutch says the group rate can typically give customers up to a 20 percent discount, and while the co-op offers an especially good deal, solar, in general, can be a profitable way to save the planet. A small system might cost about $8,000 upfront, but you can expect to save about $17,500 on energy costs over 25 years, say co-op organizers. That’s a net profit of nearly $10,000.