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News Maryland Baltimore County Towson

Coalition brings solar energy co-ops to Baltimore area

Amanda Kilian finds the idea of installing solar panels on the roof of her house intriguing. She likes the notion of saving money on her electricity bill. She appreciates using a renewable energy source like the sun. But, she wants to find out more.

"I can't think of a possible downside. It's a step toward further embracing renewable energy. But I want to talk to my contractor, to find out about the feasibility of solar panels on an existing roof," said Kilian, a Timonium resident

Last week, Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, where Kilian is a member, hosted a meeting on the subject. During the meeting, the first residential solar cooperative in the Baltimore metro area was launched.

Called the Baltimore Interfaith Solar Co-op, the co-op allows members to purchase home solar systems from an installer together, negotiating a group rate. Despite its title, the Baltimore co-op is open to all regardless of church membership or religious affiliation.

"A co-op usually brings down electricity prices by 30 percent for members," said Joelle Novey, executive director of Interfaith Power & Light (including Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia), who spoke at the meeting.

Interfaith Power is spearheading the coalition that is introducing residential co-ops — or residential purchasing groups — to Baltimore. The coalition also includes Community Power Network, a Washington-headquartered nonprofit solar "cooperative organizer, and Maryland SUN, a solar and renewable energy advocacy group.

"We have done dozens of co-ops in D.C. metro, northern Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Maryland, in Prince George's and Montgomery counties," Novey, director of the Washington/Maryland group, said of its partnership with Community Power Network.

Novey, a Baltimore native who lives in Silver Spring, said that Community Power Network developed its solar co-op model at the grassroots level, starting in Washington's neighborhoods. Through the Washington/Maryland group, the model is now being expanded to Baltimore.

"Maryland has a strong solar market," Novey said of the state's renewable energy resource. "But as far as we know, this is a first in Baltimore."

Solar panels are based on a photovoltaic technology that converts sunlight into energy. But solar power, a clean, renewable energy source, is estimated to be five times more expensive than a traditional energy source like coal, cheaper but also highly polluting.

Based on the same principle as buying in bulk, the residential group will purchase home solar systems together. The group selects a single contractor to install systems on all of the homes. Depending on the contractor, participants may have the option of owning or leasing their solar panels. Each participant will sign their own contract, customized for their solar needs, with the chosen installer. But everyone will get a group discount.

The system is grid-tied, meaning that the panels are connected directly to the home-owner's electrical power provider. Ideally, the system's output equals the homeowner's energy use, measured as one kilowatt of solar power to one kilowatt of electricity used.

But various factors come into play: the house's exposure, the number of sunny days and individual electricity consumption. The system might produce one-third or one-half or even more of your electricity. On the other hand, said Novey, "If it produces more electricity than you use, the excess is carried over to your next bill."

Although barely a dozen people attended the meeting at the Towson church, the organizers are hoping that at least 20 people sign up for the co-op before the deadline, tentatively set for Aug. 15.

"You need at least 20 committed people for a co-op. More people can join the co-op but that doesn't lower the price of the contract that is negotiated with the installer," said Novey.

Public acceptance of solar power appears to be growing. The Community Power Network installed its first solar co-op in 2009. In 2014, it will install a total of 11 co-ops; in 2015, over 20 co-ops, based on the number of requests.

"We have more requests than we can handle," said Anya Schoolman, the network's executive director, who spoke at the Towson meeting with along with Novey.

Co-ops range in size. A small one is 20 houses but we've done one of over 170 houses in a neighborhood in Blacksburg, Va.," home of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said Schoolman.

Community Power Network partners on solar co-ops with other residential, institutional and community organizations. Clients include the University of Maryland, College Park's Office of Sustainability and Community Power Network, City of College Park and World Wildlife Fund. The network has partnered with Interfaith Power & Light on individual religious facilities but this is its first partnership with them on a residential co-op.

Interfaith Power & Light is a national nonprofit with 40 affiliates around the country. It works exclusively with congregations and religious groups. The Washington/Maryland group is headquartered in the district, but is in the process of opening an office in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore City.

State and federal laws and tax incentives have helped to bring the price of solar systems within reach of homeowners, according to Schoolman, who gave examples of cost and savings for typical solar systems during the meeting.

A 3-kilowatt system, suitable for a rowhouse, costs $13,500 for rooftop or ground solar panels, installation and permits. A 5-kilowatt system, for a suburban house, costs $22,500. But with bulk purchase discounts, federal and state tax credits and grants, the final cost of a 3-kilowatt system comes to $3,935 and a 5-kilowatt system to $7,225.

Schoolman arrived at the final cost by deducting from the initial cost the co-op's bulk purchase discount, usually one-third of the system cost; a one-time Maryland Renewable Energy Portfolio solar credit, sold on the renewables market; a one-time federal tax credit of 30 percent of the system cost; a one-time Maryland Clean Energy Grant; and estimated electricity savings in one year.

Maryland state law regulates net metering. Anyone with a home or building can have a solar system that offsets up to 100 percent of their electricity consumption, at a rate of one kilowatt hour to one kilowatt hour.

Most states have similar laws. "They're an encouragement to install these solar systems," said Schoolman.

As for Novey, she said that the Washington/Maryland group also offers wind energy co-ops, working with a partner to put them together. However, these are paper transactions with wind providers only, and do not involve installing wind turbines, a more complicated scenario than solar.

Like Schoolman, Novey finds that solar systems are increasingly popular, whether for individual churches and congregations or for residential use.

"People are excited about clean energy. They are concerned about climate change," Novey said. "More and more people are signing up for the co-ops. But they need guidance and a community process."

For information, visit the website mdsun.org/solar-bulk-purchases/baltimore-interfaith.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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