Solar energy advocates see growing potential in co-ops

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
Perry Bryant, a retired East End resident, is a member of Charleston’s first solar co-op. Bryant said his rooftop solar panels have generated 98.7 percent of his electrical use since their installment more than a year ago.
KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
The solar panels on top of Perry Bryant’s home were installed a little more than a year ago. Bryant said the panel installment cost around $7,500 with tax credits and that being a part of a solar co-op drove down that cost.
KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail
The solar controller on Bryant’s house lets him know from what direction his panels are getting sunlight. The solar panels power his East End home.

Perry Bryant isn’t new to the renewable energy game. The former executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and recent retiree, lives on Lee Street East in Charleston, has a hybrid car and is a longtime advocate of alternative energy like solar.

But the hassle of switching his home over to a renewable energy source wasn’t practical until he joined Charleston’s first solar co-op a little more than a year ago.

“We all have a responsibility to step up to the plate when it comes to using energy,” he said. “Now it’s so much easier for a typical household to rely on solar.”

Bryant’s co-op won’t be alone for long. Charleston residents recently formed a second one with the state branch of the U.S. Green Building Council and solar advocacy group WV SUN as its sponsors. Increased interest in renewable energy sources drove the creation of the new co-op, said Autumn Long, WV SUN’s solar co-op coordinator for Charleston.

The new co-op proves the future for solar “is very bright” in West Virginia, even with the state being known for its coal production and recent natural gas surge, according to Bryant.

The primary advantage of a solar co-op is saving on electric costs and streamlining the most difficult parts of the process — determining if a home is right for solar panels and installing the panels — for its members, Bryant said.

Being a part of a co-op instead of pursuing panel installments alone provides the advantage of cheaper costs that come with buying in bulk, according to Long.

Bryant said he began considering solar panels around 2012, but at the time it was too expensive and inefficient.

“It cost $27,000 to have something that would carry 15 percent of my electric needs,” he said.

Bryant said he’s studied his electrical usage, and found his solar panels generated 98.7 percent of his electrical use since their installment. The panel installment only cost around $7,500 with tax credits for a 3.8-watt system, he said.

WV SUN provides co-op members with an assessment of the viability of their homes for solar installation, said Long, who had solar panels installed on her own home in Harrison County a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. Ideal homes for solar panels are those without excessive shade from trees and other structures and allows the panels to face south to produce more energy, Long said. The roof itself should also be in good condition to make sure an installation doesn’t cause damage to the home, she added.

When ready, the co-op starts a bidding process, known as a request for proposal, for solar panel installers to address every home in the co-op’s system. The chosen installer, determined by a volunteer selection committee made up of co-op members, has an individual contract with each member. But the bulk purchase allows the group to save up to 20 percent off from what each member would have to pay on his or her own, Long said.

The co-op makes the decision on its own, but WV SUN is available to provide guidance on the details of each bid and what they mean for the members, Long said. WV SUN has played a role in the development of about 12 co-ops in the state, she added.

Long said the new co-op could still use more members, as WV SUN has determined 10 people are qualified for the panel installments so far. The average co-op wants at least 20 to 30 members to get the full range of benefits, she said.

Colin Williams, vice president of sales and marketing at the Berkeley Springs-based solar panel installer Mountain View Solar, said the biggest benefit of the co-op model for installers is increased awareness of solar energy’s viability.

“The groups like WV SUN that help these co-ops get started are really good advocates and educational resources for people on solar,” he said. “That’s just going to help the [solar panel] market.”

However, West Virginia isn’t a leader in solar power yet, Long said.

“Our co-ops are a hefty proportion of the state’s solar energy development,” she said. “There is tons of room for growth, especially because West Virginia has relatively low hourly [electric] rates.”

Williams added that the co-op model could make further strides to help installers by giving them an opportunity to be considered for projects in their local area and making sure members know the benefits to working with a properly licensed installer instead of one without certification.

Those interested in the co-op can visit www.wvsun.org/charleston/. The webpage also has details on solar information sessions held in Charleston on June 27 and Hurricane on July 18, along with an open house held June 25 in Leon.

Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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