solar panels
Credit: zak zak / Creative Commons

Two nonprofit organizations offering to save consumers money on solar panels by buying them in bulk have begun campaigns in Minnesota.

Solar United Neighbors announced an expansion into Minnesota, which joins Ohio as the second Midwest state with a local office. Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), meanwhile, started “Solar Power Hour” events over the summer in Minnesota, culminating with an energy fair in September in St. Paul.

Both organizations see Minnesota a ripe for more rooftop investment. “The community is welcoming, and we saw what we do as a complimentary niche to what other groups working in clean energy are doing in Minnesota,” said Solar United Neighbors executive director Anya Schoolman. “Minnesota has a real solar market, so that makes it easier.”

MREA has more than four years of experience doing bulk-buying projects in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

“We’re looking at the greater Twin Cities because we have partnerships and an outreach network there,” said MREA executive director Nick Hylla. “At the (September) Energy Fair in St. Paul it was exciting because we had had 5,000 attendees and 100 free workshops. We’re going to build off that public education event and through the contracting firms we’ve established relationships with.”

The installers chosen to work with MREA on Minnesota projects are TruNorth Solar, Able Energy Co., All Energy Solar, Solar Farm and Live Wire Electrical Services LLC.

MREA has also developed a new tool, Solar Project Builder, to help businesses and nonprofits forecast the costs and benefits of four different investment approaches to solar energy.

While MREA focuses on the Midwest, the Washington, D.C.-based Solar United Neighbors has plans to become “the national organization that represents the interests of solar owners and community solar subscribers,” Schoolman said. “We’re strategically picking states regionally and then building out from there.”

Clean energy veteran Virginia Rutter will lead the Minnesota office. She’s hoping to launch two projects yet this year and several more around the state by October of next year.

“I’ve talked to lots of different people and working with different organizations,” Rutter said. “There’s a lot of interest.”

Uncertainty over tariffs

Both organizations will delay bulk-buying until next year because installers cannot guarantee prices until the federal government decides whether there will be tariffs on imported panels, said Hylla.

The U.S. International Trade Commission made a preliminary finding in September that imported solar panels and modules hurt domestically produced modules. It is expected to issue a recommendation today on various types of remedies for U.S.-based manufacturers. A final decision will be left to President Trump.

The case pits Suniva and Solar World Americas, which later joined the suit, against installers and advocates who argue the solar boom has been helped by cheap imports. Companies are warehousing modules now, awaiting potentially higher prices due to a tariff, he said.

It’s hard for suppliers to guarantee prices on any modules because some may have tariffs, others may not, depending on the ITC’s decision. Panels are around 30 percent of the cost of a solar system, Hylla said, so any increase in them will result in higher prices overall.

Yet he’s not overly concerned. “No one wants prices to go up, but this alone isn’t going to hurt the market all that much,” he said. “It will be a great price even it’s its 15 percent more. Electricity prices are only going up.”

Spreading the word

Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), a statewide effort that promotes clean energy and efficiency in Minnesota, plans to assist both organizations with spreading the word, said communications manager Dan Thiede.

“There have been a number of efforts to date in Minnesota to bring together residents interested in solar for the benefits of education and increased buying power, and we’re lucky to add Solar United Neighbors and Midwest Renewable Energy Association and their approaches of solar bulk purchasing groups to that list,” Thiede said.

“These organizations will most certainly help grow Minnesota’s network of solar adopters and accelerate our transition to a clean energy future.”

Solar United Neighbors and MREA provide similar services to promote and increase rooftop adoption. They first hold informational sessions in various locations and then recruit homeowners and businesses that want to participate in a bulk buy — usually from 30 to 100 customers.

A request for proposals is drawn up and sent to solar installers. MREA has pre-selected the companies it will work with in Minnesota, while Solar United Neighbors plans to send proposals to many installers.

Incentives exist for buyers and installers. Under MREA’s program, if a neighborhood signs up for more than 50 kilowatts (kW), each solar buyer receives a $250 rebate. For more than 100 kW the rebate doubles to $500.

Installers bidding on Solar United Neighbors projects typically cut in half their customer acquisition costs, Schoolman said.

Both organizations say the savings for consumers on panels can range from 20 to 45 percent. And both say they save contractors time and money through their educational efforts.

“They save a lot of time in customer education and customer qualification,” he said. “The margins are so tight for customers they understand if they don’t have get the group contract someone else will.”

Rutter agrees: “We’re saving installers time and money on the acquisition side. Installers in other states have really seen their profits grow and have responded repeatedly to our (requests for proposals). We assume the same thing will happen in Minnesota.”

Solar United Neighbors says it has served nearly 2,400 clients and saved them collectively close to $8.6 million. Solar energy is helping those same customers save more than $84.5 million on their electricity costs.

Hylla said MREA has delivered 292 solar projects in its bulk-buying program, saving customers $284,000 collectively the first year the panels went into service.

The most success MREA has had, he noted, is in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area, where a partner solar company there handled 104 installations.

Prior to coming to Solar United Neighbors Rutter worked for several years for Eutectics Consulting LLC as a research analyst, where her projects focused on the solar industry.

The opportunity to build interest in solar at the community level drew Rutter to the organization. Consumers win by getting better pricing through co-op buying, and installers win by having a group of pre-qualified buyers. “It’s a great program,” she said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

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