Dozens attend solar co-op meeting

About 40 people packed into the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center Tuesday evening for Charleston’s first solar co-op meeting.

Anya Schoolman, who founded Community Power Network, and Emily Stiever, who is serving as acting director for WV Sun, talked to attendees about equipment needed, the co-op process and the economics of going solar.

“People love solar for so many different reasons,” Schoolman said. “We never tell people why to like it, we only tell them how to get it.”

Some people are focused on lower electric bills, some care about climate chance and others are interested in creating jobs, Schoolman said.

“I like that feeling of bridge-building and giving people a sense of hope like there’s something they can do,” Schoolman said.

Community Power Network grew from Schoolman’s own experience trying to bring solar to her Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Since 2007, the organization has helped more than 30 solar co-ops form in Maryland, D.C., Virginia and West Virginia.

Charleston’s co-op will be the fifth in the Mountain State.

Bill DePaulo of Charleston is trying to learn more about installing solar panels on the apartment complex he lives in.

DePaulo is interested in the environmental side of solar panels, he said.

“[WV Sun] brings a lot of experience,” DePaulo said.

The organization helps people who don’t know too much about solar technology but believe it’s a good thing, he said.

“It’s an outstanding approach to doing this,” DePaulo said. “It tremendously reduces the risk that a homeowner will make a mistake because they don’t know what they’re buying.”

He added the co-op method reduces overall costs by reaching a deal with an installer as a group.

Schoolman and Stiever reiterated the cost benefits of the co-op method to attendees, saying WV Sun does a lot of the leg work ensuring co-op members are actually viable solar customers.

Before any contracts are sign with installers, WV Sun does an assessment of the residence or business wanting to install solar to find out if a roof or ground mount would be best and suggests making any roof repairs before installing a unit. They said once a solar unit is installed on a home it’s important for residents to inform their home owners insurance of the change.

A solar panel was passed around as Schoolman discussed how energy bills would be reduced by the amount of energy someone produces with a solar unit.

In West Virginia, net-metering is the mechanism that allows people to generate power that flows back into the power grid and receive a discount for the energy they produce for the grid.

However, legislation passed this year calls for a review of net-metering impact on other industries and consumers by the Public Service Commission. The ruling is expected by summer’s end and the Charleston co-op will take that into consideration as it moves forward, Schoolman said.

People wondered if each co-op member would have the same unit, what the equipment options are and how financing for the units could be provided.

The co-op negotiates a base-price for the entire co-op after deciding on which installer to go with, Schoolman said. Each co-op forms its own committee to help decide which provider is best for the group.

“It’s about helping people do it their own way,” Schoolman said.

Each individual homeowner will have their own estimate from the installer based on what type of system they want, their budget and utility usage, which will derive from the co-op base rate.

Stiever and Schoolman stressed the importance of exploring financial assistance before signing any contracts. Many installers offer their own finance packages as well as local credit unions, they said.

The installations take about one to two day, Stiever said.

WV Sun hopes the Charleston co-op will have all its solar units installed by the end of the year to take advantage of federal tax credits.

Okey Livingston has been interested in solar power for some time now, so he drove about 50 miles to attend the co-op meeting and learn more.

In 1991, Livingston stayed in a solar-powered cabin in Colorado and thought it was great.

He’s looked into solar panels in the past, but said the co-op model, which saves members an average of 20 percent on the units that range from $12,000 to $36,000, makes it much more affordable.

He plans to talk to WV Sun about hosting a meeting for a Mason County co-op.

“We weren’t really sure if it would work in West Virginia to tell you the truth,” Schoolman said.

“Friends are the most important source of all our information.”

The Charleston co-op hopes to have another informational meeting sometime in June.

Visit www.wvsun.org for more information about solar co-ops throughout the Mountain State.

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

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