Solar Cooperatives: What You Need to Know

Commercial Solar Power Array

By Bill Johnson, President, Brilliant Harvest

Sarasota Solar Co-Op Initiative

By now, you’ve probably heard about the new Sarasota Solar Co-Op initiative. The co-op program is co-sponsored by a coalition including environmental, advocacy and social action groups, and supported by two local foundations. All homeowners in Sarasota are eligible to participate.

I’ve been asked by a lot of people how I feel about this and they are surprised when I note how thrilled I am that there will be any movement toward greater solar adoption in Sarasota County – but that there are some significant potential downsides to consider as well.

What a Solar Cooperative Is

First, some information about what a solar cooperative is. Through a solar co-op, members of a neighborhood or geographic area come together to enhance their purchasing power. A coordinating body helps to educate potential customers about the basic details of solar power, discussing the solar power pros and cons without sales pressure. This body works to secure a discounted price for solar panels and installation; there is a committee responsible for collecting proposals from contractors interested in doing the job – they will select a single installer on behalf of all participating consumers.

The pros, then, of a solar co-op are financial savings and the sharing of knowledge. The project team does the research on available rebates and tax credits, and any grants that might be available. The overseeing body also stays on top of the installation progress and evaluates the performance of the chosen vendor.

Downsides of Solar Co-Ops

Now I’d like to talk about the downsides of solar co-ops.

The first potential downside is the idea of choosing a single contractor for all of the projects in the co-op. This “winner take all” approach may encourage bidding contractors to make reckless choices in an effort to offer the lowest possible price (more on that shortly). This arrangement reduces consumer choice, creates the possibility for larger problems if the contractor fails to meet his/her obligations, and may result in serious hardship for local contractors if they lose the bidding in their own community.

In a solar co-op, the contractor chosen for the project may not be from your community, meaning he or she may be less invested in ensuring you and other co-op members are successful with your solar system in the long-term. Having a local vendor ensures a greater commitment to quality – they do, after all, have to live and work where the customers do – they’ll be there when maintenance or repair issues come up, for years down the road.

Given the discounts promised, it’s likely that the contractor will have to cut corners in order to meet the reduced price, pay the required $600 fee for each installation to the co-op, and still render the project profitable. This can impact materials selection, equipment warranties, installation quality, or future support and maintenance – or all of them! The cliché “you get what you pay for” holds true here.

Additionally, being part of a co-op means that you may have to wait for a while for your project to get started, particularly if you have a unique or tricky installation. In a co-op, a contractor must install dozens – or hundreds – of solar energy systems within an agreed-upon window of time, so the contractor will naturally focus on the easy “cookie cutter” projects (to maximize profit). He or she will also almost certainly need to secure assistance to get through the projects – but will they hire reliable and skilled help? Can you be sure that the people working on your house are trustworthy and experienced, and that they truly care about the finished product?

It’s really important that you do your homework if you’re considering joining a solar co-op, just as you would if you were planning to install a solar energy system on your own. Research the chosen contractor through inquiries to past customers (make sure you ask for references!) and online reviews. Make sure you understand your estimate: research the solar panels the installer plans to use on your home – make sure you understand the warranty on them as well – and ask questions about the people who will be at your house and on your roof, doing the job. Ask about any certifications – the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is the most reputable certification program for solar PV – and industry associations he or she is a member of. Listen to your gut during the contract negotiation, too: if you don’t feel comfortable with them, they might not be a good fit for you.

Maximize Your Savings

Finally, you should make sure that you have access to the best, most state-of-the-art technology possible, to fully maximize your savings, power output and energy security. The Tesla Powerwall is a home battery that stores electricity for consumption, load shifting and backup power. (Click HERE to learn more about the Powerwall.) If the Powerwall interests you, then you might want to go with a Tesla Energy Certified Installer to do your entire job.

Even if you are leaning toward participating in a co-op, I would strongly suggest you get at least one alternate bid from another contractor. You’ve got nothing to lose and, when you compare apples-to-apples quotes, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Good for the economy, Good for the planet

Again, I want to emphasize that any expansion of solar power is good for the economy and good for the planet. Just be sure that you follow the same careful practices as a consumer whether you go co-op or go it alone!

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