EarthTalk is a Q&A column from E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: 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
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 U.S. and Canada have created a new model whereby going solar can actually start to pencil out for individual homeowners.
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, Canada. The entire community, now with more than 50 homes built and occupied, is heated by a neighborhood-wide "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% of each home's space heating needs, with any slack taken up by fossil fuels.
While some planned communities like Drake Landing incorporated neighborhood solar power from the get-go, others decided it made sense after they were first built. One example is the deal that homeowners in Marin County, California can get in on, thanks to the hard work of the nonprofit GoSolarMarin. The group negotiated discounted group rates with several photovoltaic solar panel providers, and eventually signed on with SolarCity, a Silicon Valley-based solar provider that operates some 30 different "community solar programs" across California, Arizona and Oregon.
GoSolarMarin was able to negotiate a rate some 25% lower than what a typical solar installation would cost for Marin County residents willing to participate. And best of all, 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, and also makes house calls for maintenance as needed.
While California is no doubt a leader in residential solar power, the concept is spreading. 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. "We act as an independent buyer's agent," the group reports on its website, "with the goal of providing the best value to residential solar purchasers while helping installers put up more solar at reduced overhead costs."
Community-based groups like GoSolarMarin and Neighborhood Solar are springing up all over the country, and dozens of solar companies have now adopted the community installation model. Community leaders interested in neighborhood-scope solar programs should shop around for the best prices and service guarantees before signing with any one solar provider. There's a lot individuals can do to be part of clean energy solutions; there's even more a group working in concert can accomplish, and community-based solar is but one bright and shining example.
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