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Solar co-op harnesses the power of community

Mark Parker

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Trinity Presbyterian Church of Clearwater recently opened its 391-panel solar system, the largest from a SUN co-op member to date. Photos provided.

Nonprofit group Solar United Neighbors (SUN) recently announced the launch of its local solar cooperative in the hopes of creating a cleaner electrical system that broadly shares its benefits.

Based in Washington, D.C., SUN is a national nonprofit representing the interests of solar owners and supporters. The organization began its Pinellas County cooperatives (co-op) in 2015 and announced the launch of this year’s cohort Sept. 8. Membership is free and open to all local home and business owners.

The 2022 program follows Clearwater’s Trinity Presbyterian Church opening its 391-panel system, the largest by a SUN co-op member to date. Julia Herbst, Gulf Coast program coordinator, said the organization’s solar experts focus on providing education and consumer protection. Members then leverage their numbers to purchase individual systems at the best price and quality possible.

“It really streamlines the process,” said Herbst. “If you went solar on your own, it’s contacting a lot of contractors, knowing what questions to ask and how to compare apples to apples.”

She said contractor selection is a competitive process aided by the nonprofit’s experts, which remain vendor-neutral. Following several educational sessions – the first virtual event is Sept. 15 – members collectively select a single company for installations.

Members, said Herbst, are not obligated to purchase a system. Instead, they have the option to individually purchase solar panels and electric vehicle chargers based on the installer’s group rate. She noted that nonmembers might receive the same rates but said participants generally save money by shopping around and collectively choosing a local contractor familiar with the area.

Herbst added that initial cost “isn’t the only bottom line” when making a long-term investment.

“You’re thinking 25 years, at least, and what is that going to do for the value of your home and your return on investment?” she said. “So, there are things to consider besides price, as well.”

Julia Herbst (left) is Gulf Coast program coordinator for Solar United Neighbors.

According to a release, SUN has hosted 74 solar co-ops in Florida since 2015. The organization estimates that the 2,262 homes and businesses that purchased solar systems through the program represent 22.1 thousand kilowatts of renewable energy, $52.6 million in local spending and over 670.8 million pounds of lifetime carbon offsets.

The City of Clearwater funds the co-op, said Herbst, and additional partners include the Cities of Dunedin, Largo, St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor. The Suncoast Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas and the St. Petersburg Area also support the organization.

“The City of Largo is committed to supporting a community-wide transition to 100 percent renewable energy through stakeholder engagement and encouraging benefits for the most vulnerable in our community,” said Laura C. Thomas, sustainability program administrator for the city, in a statement. “The Solar United Neighbors Co-op is an excellent way to increase solar adoption and reduce utility bills for Largo residents.”

This year’s program, which currently has 33 members out of a stated goal of 200, closes Dec. 16. Herbst said there is no limit to how many people can join. She also noted the popularity of the program in Pinellas.

Herbst said this is the eighth co-op in the county, making it one of the most experienced. She called it a densely populated area full of “smart” residents who want to save on their electric bills and care about the environment and community investments.

Once members select a vendor and sign a contract, Herbst said SUN receives a fee from the company that supports the project. However, she said it does not affect customer pricing and is “much lower” than what installers typically pay for lead generation.

“This is a very pro-marketplace practice,” she added.

Herbst said the nonprofit has received pushback from utility companies, especially through the last year. She explained that a key aspect of the SUN’s existence is to act as an advocate and voice for solar owners.

The organization’s ultimate mission, she said, is to help people utilize the sun for their energy uses and collectively fight for their right to clean energy.

“We really envision a new energy system – a new, democratic energy system in the region,” said Herbst. “So, that’s what we’re searching for, and it starts house by house and neighbor by neighbor.”

For more information on the Pinellas County cooperative, visit the website here.

 

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