Earth Talk: Community-wide solar cuts costs

Collective solar groups help entire neighborhoods use clean energy.

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    Drake Landing solar housing in Okotoks, Alberta. More communities are joining together to negotiate for lower rates on group installations and periodic upgrades.
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Q: I know of solar power systems that people can put on their roofs to generate electricity or heat water. Are there systems that serve whole neighborhoods?
Lee Helscel, via e-mail

A: Collective bargaining is a good strategy when looking to get the best price on a given product or service. Solar power is no exception, and dozens of neighborhood-wide installations in the US and Canada have created a new model for going solar.

One of the first neighborhood-wide solar installations in the world was at the master-planned community of Drake Landing in the town of Okotoks in Alberta. The entire community is heated by a “borehole thermal energy” system designed to store abundant solar energy underground during the summer and distribute it to each home as needed for space heating throughout the winter. The system, which launched in June 2007, now fulfills some 90 percent of each home’s space heating needs, with any slack taken up by fossil fuels.

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While some planned communities incorporated neighborhood solar power from the beginning, others decided to do so later. One example is the deal that homeowners in Marin County, Calif., can get in on, thanks to the work of the nonprofit GoSolarMarin. The group negotiated discounted group rates with several photovoltaic solar-panel providers, and eventually signed on with SolarCity, a solar provider that operates some 30 different “community solar programs” across California, Arizona, and Oregon.

GoSolarMarin was able to negotiate a rate some 25 percent lower than a typical solar installation would cost. And homeowners can lease from SolarCity instead of having to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to buy equipment that may become obsolete in a few years. SolarCity monitors all clients’ installations online to ensure that they are running at peak performance, and also makes house calls for maintenance as needed.

This concept is spreading beyond California. Neighborhood Solar, for instance, is a Colorado-based nonprofit formed to accelerate the adoption of residential solar power in the Denver metro area. The group organizes homeowners into collective solar purchasing groups and negotiates significant discounts accordingly.

Community-based groups are springing up all over the country, and dozens of solar companies have now adopted the community installation model. These organizations are bright and shining examples of how a group working in concert can accomplish much to be part of clean-energy solutions.

Questions about living green? Send to: EarthTalk, c/o E - The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 ; earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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