Solar co-ops sprouting up across West Virginia, including Charleston

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette
Tom Worlledge installed six solar panels on his South Hills home last summer. He hopes to add six more panels as Charleston’s first solar co-op gets rolling this week with an informational meeting.
F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette photos
The six solar panels on Tom Worlledge’s home charge his plug-in Prius in about five hours. Worlledge plans to add more solar panels to his home soon. He is interested in joining Charleston first solar co-op.

Thom Worlledge was 17 when he attended the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington where he grew up. There was a solar hot water heater in the Australian pavilion that changed his outlook on renewable energy.

“I stuck my hand in the water and burnt my finger,” Worlledge said. “I realized there’s something to this.”

Last summer, Worlledge installed six solar panels to his South Hills home. Worlledge is planning to add six more panels soon, and hopefully with the help of a new Charleston solar co-op.

WV Sun is hosting the first meeting for the Charleston solar co-op at the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. The building is located at 1506 Kanawha Blvd. on Charleston’s West Side.

“I thought it was just time to talk about a solar co-op,” said Sarah Halstead, community and economic development specialist with West Virginia State University extension services.

Worlledge, who works as an architect in Charleston, says going the co-op route as he expands his residential solar operation will be beneficial.

“[The co-op] is a good way to reduce the overall costs of the system,” Worlledge said.

Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, the umbrella organization WV Sun operates under, said purchasing the solar units as a larger group will be a better deal for consumers. Customers typically save around 20 percent on the systems that can cost around $15,000 to install.

Emily Stiever from WV Sun will lead the first meeting about the co-op process. Delman said the entire process takes time. After the meeting, people can decide if they want to join the co-op before roof reviews for members are complete.

The group hopes to have 25 to 30 members planning to install solar units before the group sends out bids for installation. Then the co-op members will review bids and get individual solar unit proposals. From there, the co-op members sign contracts and move to the installation stage.

WV Sun has helped form solar co-ops in Fayette and Monroe Counties. Co-ops in Wheeling and Morgantown are also in their infancies.

“We’ve been blown away by the number of people that are interested in solar,” Delman said. “People want to go solar and are really motivated to help organize solar co-ops in their community.”

Since 2007, Community Power Network has launched more than 30 solar co-ops throughout West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

Community Power Network grew from Anya Schoolman’s own experience. Schoolman wanted solar panels at her home in D.C., but found the process complex and expensive. So Schoolman started a solar co-op in her neighborhood.

Members of each individual co-op decide on what company they want to install the units after reviewing four to seven bids, Delman said. The Fayette County co-op, which has about 36 members, used Cleveland, Ohio based Appropriately Applied Technologies. The Monroe co-op, with more than 80 members, used Frederick, Maryland based Sustainable Energy Systems as its installer.

Worlledge wanted to take advantage of tax credits for installing solar panels. It’s a lifestyle decision, he said.

The solar system re-charges Worlledge’s plug-in Toyota Prius.

The solar panels save Worlledge around 10 to 15 percent on his utility bill. He tracks how much energy the panels are generating with a phone application called Enlighten.

On an overcast afternoon last week, the system generated 6.67 kilowatt hours. Since installing the system, it’s generated 2.75 megawatt hours.

Halstead believes people are changing the way they think about sustainable and renewable energy in the area.

“It’s not just energy nerds [interested in solar],” Halstead said. “It’s regular people.”

She added overall lower cost on solar energy products, coupled with the buying power of a group, adding solar is not just for people with extra money.

Interest in Charleston’s co-op is spanning the socioeconomic stratus, Halstead said.

Residents, businesses and non-profits are wanting to know more, she said.

The EDC hopes to not only host the space for the co-op, but join it, too.

“We’re motivated just like everyone else to lower our utility bills,” Halstead said.

She hopes Charleston’s co-op can be an inspiration for other communities across the state.

“You’re not going to easily get off the grid but you can make your building more resilient,” Halstead said. “Which is like the new sustainability.”

Why not use resources that are freely delivered to us everyday, Worlledge asked.

“There’s always been a little push-back here in West Virginia because we are a power generating state,” Worlledge said.

Worlledge doesn’t think solar will replace the power systems already in place.

“We always need a base load — solar really doesn’t work well at night,” he said. “It’s just a better way of utilizing energy.”

Worlledge is reminded of his motto of “conservation first, then renewables” every time he looks at his computer where a fortune cookie reads, “think about what you’ll think about 10 years from now.”

More information about the Charleston solar co-op and others throughout the Mountain State can be found at www.wvsun.org

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5113 or follow @caitlincookWV on Twitter.

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