When a university bus reading, “Hey CO2, Fear the Turtle,” passed research scientist Bob Bartolo on the campus, he figured this community could quickly warm up to solar energy.
Bartolo then decided to bring Community Power Network, a Washington-based renewable energy nonprofit, to the attention of this university’s Office of Sustainability. Together, they began planning a bulk purchase of solar panels for the College Park community.
The network has organized
10 group solar purchases in the Washington metropolitan area since 2009, CPN officials said, to the benefit of customers, installers, local jobs and the environment.
CPN executive director Anya Schoolman tried to install solar panels on her own in 2006 but found the process overwhelming and expensive, she said. She started planning and organizing the first group purchase, which happened three years later and included 45 homes in Washington.
The network has refined the purchasing process. It does all the research for a group, finding companies that install solar panels and seeking out proposals. Then the group votes to select a bid, and the chosen company completes the installations at a reduced rate.
“We really stay with the homeowners all the way through the process and help them,” Schoolman said. “You have the support to do it. It’s easier and cheaper to do it, which is the bottom line.”
Homeowners save about 30 percent by purchasing in a group, because the company can save on advertisements knowing they have guaranteed installations, Bartolo said. But once solar panels are installed and then connected to the grid, homeowners will continue to save money.
“Most people produce somewhere between a third and two-thirds of their electricity from their solar [panels],” Schoolman said. “There’s different years to the payback, but in the end it’s a money-saver for all the participants.”
There’s an environmental benefit too, Schoolman said.
“The more solar that we have, it helps us to reduce pollution and address climate change,” said Emily Stiever, CPN program director. “It’s also a way promote a vibrant local economy, since we’re working with local companies.”
The first meeting for the College Park group purchase was in December. Seventeen people have signed up to go solar, including university faculty and staff, though the commitment is not binding.
Schoolman hopes about 30 people will have signed up by the end of the month, though the group needs a minimum of 20 houses for the discount.
Grant Klein, a 2013 university alumnus, works for the network as solar bulk purchases program manager and said he enjoys connecting his work with his alma mater.
“It should engage the community around something; it can galvanize that sense of community feel that I know College Park is always striving for,” Klein said. “It will help lower their electricity bills, their carbon footprint, and the town itself can say they are a green town.”
Bartolo held a seminar on solar energy a couple of years ago, which led him to Schoolman’s team and the nationwide solar energy movement. He said he hopes this university’s project will gain more attention. They are planning one more meeting and increased advertisements until June 7, the last day to sign up.
“People have seen them, so they are aware of solar panels, but they obviously don’t know a lot about them,” Bartolo said. “It’s not as natural a process to buy solar panels as it is to buy a car or buy a new TV. It’s a little bit of a foreign technology for a lot of people, so I think overcoming that is something we can work on.”