Minnesota homeowners are joining co-ops to create bulk purchasing power opportunities for solar power systems. Installations can cost $15,000 and higher, but these co-ops help consumers save 10–30 percent of the upfront cost, according to Solar United Neighbors, which helps homeowners navigate the process of going solar.
Six co-ops in six communities currently exist in Apple Valley, Bemidji, Kandiyohi, Mahtomedi, Minneapolis and Rochester.
Solar United Neighbors has 156 co-ops in eight states (Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) as well as Washington, D.C., where it began in 2007.
Solar United Neighbors wants to support the overall growth of solar.
“One of the biggest factors in someone choosing to go solar is if their neighbor has it,” said Virginia Rutter, Solar United Neighbors Minnesota program director. “We’re increasing awareness and educating people about solar.”
Rockville, Md., witnessed a spike in solar installations in 2015 and 2016, after Solar United Neighbors launched the Rockville Solar co-op. Residential solar units doubled from 2014–2015, according to its website.
To make bulk purchasing power and discounted pricing on solar rooftop installations a reality, the organization brings together 50–100 neighbors into solar co-ops. About 30 percent of co-op members choose to go solar, and 70 percent choose to solicit proposals on their own.
Once a co-op reaches at least 30 households, Solar United Neighbors sends out a request for proposal. It compiles the proposals into a spreadsheet for the homeowners to compare. Then, the homeowners choose the preferred bidder, and installation begins. The entire process can take 10–12 months.
“I will save $2,000–4,000 compared to the independent estimate,” said Larry Etkin, a member of the Minneapolis Solar co-op, which went with Solar Farm. “When you’re talking about a $20,000 investment, that’s a significant chunk of the cost.”
“But price isn’t the only deciding factor when choosing rooftop solar,” Rutter said. “The selection committees consider price, warranties, equipment quality, local installers and installer experience. It’s a balancing act.”
For Etkin, getting involved in the co-op was a fortuitous coincidence.
“I’d been looking at solar on my house for a couple years,” he said. “I’d contacted a local installer and got an estimate just before I found out the solar co-op existed. The idea of working with a co-op appealed to me.”
Etkin has been involved in grocery co-ops for years. Solar Farm is currently working on the permitting for Etkin’s co-op, and installation could begin in September.
Solar United Neighbors helps people without a technical background understand the process, Etkin said.
“Joining our group is not an obligation to go solar through our process or even to go solar at all,” Rutter said. “We want people to have the confidence in the technology, understand the proposals and be able to make a really informed choice.”
For Etkin, going with a co-op made the whole process easier and less intimidating.
“The co-ops cut through a lot of the unknowns,” he said. “Being able to plug into an organization like this is very valuable.”
This method could help rural communities enter the solar movement.
“If you have a group of people, it makes it more viable than if you’re just one person standing out in a field by yourself,” Etkin said.
Of course, the elephant in the room for the solar power industry is President Trump's 30-percent tariffs on imported solar panels. Solar United Neighbors estimated the tariffs would impact pricing about 10–15 cents per watt.
“A lot of installers stockpiled panels, so pricing wasn’t immediately impacted,” Rutter said. “But now some prices are starting to go up.”