Local Co-Ops Can Help You Jump Through Hoops and Start Saving Energy

By Elizabeth D. Festa
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 19, 2009

One March day in 2008, Ketch Ryan, a long-time environmentalist, sent a message to her neighborhood group e-mail list in the town of Chevy Chase, inviting neighbors to see the modest two-kilowatt solar-panel array she had just installed on her south-facing roof to convert sunlight into household electricity.

"Loads of people came," Ryan said. They asked questions about the process and how to do it themselves. The Common Cents Solar Co-op was born then and there, founded by Ryan and neighbor Kirk Renaud, who runs BioBrite, a light-therapy business in Bethesda.

"People said: 'I don't know if I could do this. I don't have the time.' I said we could all do it together; we could all go solar," said Ryan, a former policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency who now teaches art at Sidwell Friends School.

Common Cents negotiates discounts from installers, fills out paperwork, applies for rebates, bundles solar credits, helps with scheduling and even arranges to get house keys to let in contractors. Homeowners sign contracts with and make payments to Common Cents, which then pays the contractors. The co-op helped Helen Price, a resident of the town of Chevy Chase, install an array of Sunslates, which resemble regular slate shingles but actually function like solar panels.

"I am not sure how all the finances work," she said. "All I know is I saved money and they really facilitated things, and it is a community thing."

Solar energy co-ops like Common Cents are forming across the region as neighbors band together to save money, take a stand on greener living and chaperone one another through the installation process, from roof assessments to a final hookup to the local utility's power grid. Each co-op has its own approach, finance arrangements and challenges.

Although there are a cornucopia of financial incentives, rebates, tax credits, renewable energy credits and, lately, falling prices, homeowners are often flummoxed by the pages of paperwork involved, vendor selection, regulatory approvals, permitting, inspections, utility hookups and historic preservation issues.

"At the end of last summer, I said, 'it's time; I want to do this.' " said Lisa Heaton of Bethesda. "So I Googled 'Maryland solar' and contacted a couple of those companies. But it was just Greek. I had some phone conversations. It was still too big and scary. It was intimidating. And I am not easily intimidated. My background is science," she said.

Heaton's 1940s center-hall colonial ended up with a 4.6-kilowatt system consisting of two solar arrays -- one set facing south, the other facing west, to make the most of the sun's rays. Renaud said, "Members get substantial solar-system discounts and access to related discounted services like solar renewable-energy credit sale proceeds, energy audits, solar attic fans, solar computer systems, maintenance plans." There are no membership fees to join the co-op; one joins by signing a contract for a solar system.

In the District, the idea for the Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative was sparked three years ago after the 12-year-old sons of neighbors Anya Schoolman and Jefferson Morley watched Al Gore's global-warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," and wanted to take action, their parents said. Fliers were distributed, neighbors talked, and Schoolman, now the co-op president, began researching every aspect of providing solar electricity for homes in her historic neighborhood. In July, Schoolman, a consultant to foundations and nonprofit groups on environmental strategy and program design, became the first member of the co-op to install a special thin-film solar technology that adheres to flat roofs.

About 10 more solar installations were completed earlier this month. Schoolman and Morley expect nearly 50 homeowners to install rooftop solar pieces this fall. The co-op claims that its 50 solar-powered homes will cut carbon emissions by 6.7 million pounds over the panels' expected 25-year life span.

Unlike with Common Cents, the Mount Pleasant co-op doesn't handle the process from top to bottom. Instead, there is a lot of discussion, and informed homeowners are proactive in finding what's right for them, Schoolman said. "We do try to get discounts for our members. We do a lot of the work of educating our members, and present to contractors a group of people that have adequate sunny roof space and have a good sense of the costs," Schoolman said. "We have four main partners working with us. What we did was give our members a choice," Schoolman notes. "Even in a neighborhood as homogeneous architecturally as Mount Pleasant, there is not one single solution that fits all homes," Schoolman said.

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