Credit: Rob Rudloff / Creative Commons

Solar United Neighbors has helped more than 200 Ohio homeowners collectively install 1.4 megawatts of solar capacity.

A network of local solar power cooperatives is helping Ohio residents overcome obstacles to installing solar panels on their homes.

Since January 2016, Solar United Neighbors of Ohio has formed 14 co-ops that have helped more than 200 homeowners collectively install 1.4 megawatts of solar PV capacity.

The local groups walk members through the entire process, including choosing installers, financing projects and navigating local regulations.

Most of Ohio’s recent solar growth has come from utility and commercial scale projects, but cooperatives are playing a significant role in its residential sector. The state added about 5.8 megawatts of residential solar capacity in 2016 and 2017 combined, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“There’s a comfort and confidence for people in having an outside party as a resource,” said Luke Sulfridge, director of Solar United Neighbors of Ohio. “It’s that last little bit of assurance they need, knowing there’s someone they can turn to.”

Clean energy has faced inconsistent and unsupportive policy in Ohio, but more homeowners are turning to solar, in large part thanks to cooperatives, Sulfridge said.

Peer and expert advice

Residents sign up for a local co-op on the Solar United Neighbors website and are not committed to purchasing solar panels. When the membership is large enough, the nonprofit advises members on soliciting competitive bids from area installers. Participants are able to lean on fellow group members and experts from Solar United Neighbors if questions arise.

A co-op in Cuyahoga County signed up 400 members over its first two years, saving 32 participating households more than $98,000 in installation fees. Another 45 homeowners involved with the program are expected to put up solar panels before the end of 2018.

Mike Foley, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Sustainability, spent $7,000 to purchase 12 panels for his Cleveland-area home, using county housing enhancement loans and a $3,000 federal tax credit to defray costs. Solar covers 40 percent of his home’s electricity, and he expects savings to pay for the system within about nine years.

An interest in the technology and his position as sustainability director prompted Foley to buy in on solar, but other participants were drawn for variety of reasons, he said.

“You get a mix of people who are into the tech, asking in-depth questions about battery storage and panel size,” Foley said. “Then there’s the environmental folks interested in what the system will do for their greenhouse gas footprint.”

Even with financing alternatives and the promise of group procurement, upfront cost is a sticking point in attracting more people to the co-op. Foley suggested a power purchase agreement where consumers buy electricity from panels, rather than purchasing the pricey panels themselves.

Robust solar growth in Cuyahoga County could also be hindered by ongoing uncertainty over Ohio’s renewable portfolio standards. Although state renewable standards resumed in 2017 after the conclusion of a two-year energy freeze, provisions in House Bill 114 could weaken the solar industry by turning certain standards into voluntary goals.

“I don’t think the state has a game plan on what to do with renewables,” said Foley. “Electricity is complicated by itself because of generators, distributors and price per kilowatt. We’ve had 500 people go through meetings over the last two years to understand financing and the mechanics of a co-op. But if we’re going to push the envelope, we have to make solar more affordable.”

Solar United Neighbors, based in Washington, D.C., also has a presence in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Its model is unique in that it is installer-neutral — it’s up to members to make the ultimate selection on which contractor to hire.

“Once people see panels on a neighbor’s house, it spurs a conversation,” Sulfridge said. “We’re spurring that interest further and helping people figure out how to get over the hump.”

Another co-op model

Rooftop solar panels are not the only option for Ohioans keen on co-ops. In Lancaster, just southeast of Columbus, the state’s largest cooperative-owned solar array is producing 675,000 KW of power for an estimated 60 homes.

The array features 1,900 panels on a four-acre site, available to South Central Power customers who buy subscriptions for one or more panels, with fees tacked on to their regular bills. SCP, an electric cooperative serving more than 117,000 customers in 24 Ohio counties, is running the program with Buckeye Power, Inc., its generation and transmission provider.

SCP spokesman Mark Owen said subscribing to the program won’t save people money on their electric bills. However, the array allows green-friendly households to skip exorbitant equipment and installation costs, giving customers an opportunity to enhance their service with locally-generated renewable energy stored in the SCP power grid.

“We’re calling it a community solar project because it’s owned and maintained by the co-op,” Owen said. “There’s no upfront investment, and you’re only paying for the kilowatt hours produced by the solar array. There’s an economy of scale there you wouldn’t get with smaller installations going back to the grid.”

The program does not provide 100 percent of a household’s electricity, but participants are pleased to have an option beyond the coal-fired generation that comprises most of SCP’s power load, Owen said.  

“You’ve got this large solar array rather than just a couple of panels on a roof, and people have an opportunity to participate at their desired level,” he said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Ultimately, the co-op model can be a tool to bring down the cost of home-based solar, said Ray Fakhoury, legislative affairs director with Ohio Advanced Energy Economy, a clean power advocacy group.

“If you can’t afford to put up panels individually but have a coalition of 200 of your neighbors, you’ll be able to build those larger projects,” Fakhoury said. “We believe that as costs comes down, you’ll see solar spreading out more and more. These coalitions show that solar isn’t just good for the environment, but makes economic sense as well.”

Familiarity with solar will only help the co-op cause, said Sulfridge of Solar United Neighbors. To that end, the nonprofit has linked with the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) for the 2018 National Solar Tour, where solar-empowered citizens open their homes to teach visitors about the technology.

“A quarter of the counties in Ohio have done information sessions on co-ops, and we want to reach more people,” said Sulfridge. “We’re really going to see the needle move.”