Using a Question & Answer Format, I recently interviewed program director Aaron Sutch of the VA SUN about the benefits and background of the Solar Co-Op Movement and the Richmond Solar Community Co-Op. Homeowners in the Richmond VA area who are interested in potentially being able to have residential solar (for electricity), otherwise called a photovoltaic system, installed at their home are encouraged to contact VASUN.ORG for more information.
1) In a nutshell, how did the residential solar co-op movement get started, where and when?
The earliest iteration of the residential solar co-op movement started with the Northwest SEED Initiative in Washington state in 2009. About that same time my boss, Anya Schoolman started the first Residential solar co-op in Mt Pleasant DC. (2009)
VA SUN launched the First solar co-op in VA (Solarize Blacksburg) in 2014.
Above is section of Richmond VA residential solar array for electricity and placed in operation in 2009.
2) How, why and when did you get involved with VASUN.ORG, and how do you define your role there?
My role as program director is to handle all aspects of VA SUN, Projects, communications, technical support and advocacy.
3) What drives your personal interest in residential solar co-ops?
I love to help people go solar. I'm a former teacher so I really enjoy the educational aspect of solar.
4) How many homes are part of the co-op program in the Richmond area and other areas of Virginia?
101 and counting in Richmond. Across the state, we've helped more than 350 people go solar, with more on the way.
5) What are the main advantages for homeowners for participating in your particular co-op? Are there other competing co-ops around?
They [homeowners] have support during all phases of the project, [and] we act as a consumer advocate and use our experience to make sure it's a smooth process. The competatitive bidding process (in whch co-op members select the installer) results in lower pricing than other bulk purchase campaigns.
Yes, there are other bulk purchase models around. When VA SUN started the first co-op in Blacksburg, our idea was that if other groups wanted to do it -Great! , it accomplishes our ultimate goal of getting more solar installed. We provided these groups technical support so that they could start their own programs and they've developed differing models. At the end of the day we think it's fantastic that the consumer has multiple choices in going solar. Our model is more stakeholder-driven, and consistently delivers lower pricing and more support during the process.
6) What is the average ROI for a co-op participant and average size of home? Do you need to have a huge home to participate?
ROI is roughly 9-12 years, you don't need a large home to participate.
7) What are the size ranges of average photovoltaic system? Do they need to stay above or below a specific size? What is the average size of a system, and does that supply the majority of electricity needs for the investor/ participant?
The co-op's average size is roughly 6KW, Participants can go as low as 3 KW and we've seen systems in excess of 20 KW. System size and energy needs produced by solar depend on site characteristics and electricity usage. Which varies from site to site.
6) Why is there a deadline for April 30th?
Co-ops have a start and finish. You can think of it as a sale. The installer cannot offer the prices indefinitely.
7) Will other Richmond area homeowners have an opportunity to join a new co-op after the
April 30th deadline?
This remains to be seen. If there is enough demand for another one, we will do it. But no guarantees.
8) What is the numeric goal for participating homes in the Richmond area and why that number?
We've love to see over 30 installations.
9) Are there any rules about geographic proximity for a group of homes to form a residential solar co-op?
We are looking at the Greater Richmond area. Of about 20 square mile radius. Some outlier properties can be considered if installer can accommodate.
10) Are all your solar co-ops residential in nature? Please explain.
Businesses and residential properties are allowed.
11) What are the main financial incentives for a homeowner to invest in a residential solar array for electricity? Are there any state and/or federal tax incentives currently available? Please explain.
There is a 30% federal tax credit, and accelerated depreciation for business properties . There are currently no state incentives in VA.
12) How long (on average) from start to finish does it take to have a co-op project completed?
From start to finish it takes about 10 months.
13) Does VA SUN offer more than one co-op per geographic area?
That is correct.
14) What quality control features does the co-op have? Are all the projects inspected?
VA SUN manages the process from participant sign up to site visit and installation. Although we don't inspect every project, we work with the installers and participants to ensure that all expectations with timeline, workmanship and customer service are met.
15) What is the numeric goal for residential solar co-op projects in Virginia and specifically in the Greater Richmond area?
Again, We'd love to cover 30 installations and our goal statewide is to reach 500 residential and business customers that we can help go solar (we're now at 500). More importantly, we want to build a constituency that will fight for solar rights and help others go solar.
16) As each year passes, does the efficiency keep improving with average solar panels? What is the current efficiency rating for most photovoltaic panels? How are the specific types of solar panels selected, and who does it?
Panel efficiency goes up slightly every year. Most commercially-available panels are between 15-17% efficient. Since solar is priced by the Watt, panel efficiency is really only a factor if a home our business has limited roof space. When installers bid on the co-op they offer a couple different panel options as part of their bid. VA SUN vets the components and does due diligence on warranty etc.
17) My home has 22 solar panels total: 12 on the roof, and 10 on the side serve as a solar awning. Rooftop solar is the only type of array that your co-op builds, correct? Also, my rooftop solar is based on a ballast system, so that there is no roof penetration. Is there any roof penetration with the solar arrays you all offer?
The co-op offers ground mount options and depending on the installer different options for awnings, pergolas. Racking penetrations depend on the roof type, standing seam metals roofs and rubber membrane roofs typically involve racking that does not penetate. Asphalt shingle roofs generally require penetrations.
18) My home also has Enphase Enlighten solar monitoring and reporting, and the array uses micro-inverters to track production of individual panels. Does your co-op offer monthly solar productivity reports, micro-inverters and individual panel productivity data?
Yes, all of those are generally part of the co-op package. For RVA, the inverter has panel-level optimization and monthly reports- similar to the Enphase system.
19) Is financing available through your co-op program? Please explain.
We direct participants to a couple different options.
20) What is the average percentage of electricity that is generated by solar in a solar co-op home? Does it vary widely? How insulated and air tight a home is really makes a difference, doesn’t it?
Average amount of electricity off set by solar depends on electricity usage, space available for solar. Participants can usually produce anywhere from 30-100% of their electricity needs with solar. The more energy efficient a home is, the more you can maximize your solar investment.
Are you looking to buy or sell a home having residential solar for electricity as a specific feature? Call me today at 804-938-5257, and let's get started on your journey!