How to Start a Solar Co-op
Get started with online and local resources
Find out what the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), solar co-ops, solar gardens and community solar are doing:
To learn about the laws and programs applicable in your community, go to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, dsireusa.org. The website also lists local officials responsible for administering these programs. This is an invaluable contact list.
Find out about your local interconnection and net metering policies at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council site, irecusa.org.
Ask your electric utility and public utility commission (PUC) if they offer programs to install solar energy on homes, multifamily buildings and businesses. Make sure you know who to go to if you are in a dispute with the utility. Is it the PUC, a consumer advocacy office, a people’s counsel or something else?
Calculate your potential solar energy production by going to nrel.gov/rredc.
Meet with potential co-op members and decide what organizational structure is right for you and file with the state or local government. Explore getting pro bono legal representation to help you adopt an organizational structure and get you up and running. Remember: If you organize as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit corporation, you can raise money, but you must file annually with the IRS and you may not lobby.
See how a Solar Co-op Became Successful
Go to work
1) Have co-op members collect their monthly bills and become familiar with their usage patterns and costs for the past two years.
2) Urge them to get energy audits (some jurisdictions offer them free of charge) and initiate efficiency measures to improve the performance of insulation, window and door sealing, HVAC, appliances and lighting.
3) Search online and create a list of solar installers in your area.
4) Contact licensed and bonded roofers to assess the readiness of your members’ roofs to support thin-film or solar panel photovoltaic systems.
5) Work with local officials responsible for administering incentive programs to help your co-op and installers understand how to comply with the application, permitting and interconnection processes.
6) Explore with your co-op and legal advisers what benefits of membership you can provide immediately and over time, including:
- information sharing between members;
- buying power/economies of scale/negotiations: with solar installers, roofers, panel manufacturers, other renewable and efficiency equipment suppliers;
- building your co-op’s political muscle to improve and extend funding and support for renewable energy incentive programs; and,
- using that muscle to push for more solar-friendly programs, policies and rules.
Develop an organizational infrastructure, including:
- a detailed database to help you capture information about potential and current members,
- a co-op website, and
- a media contact list including local, state and trade media.
Making a Co-op Work
People want to go solar because it’s in their best interests to do so and they contact us because our mission is to help them.They want control over energy costs for the same reason they want a fixed-price mortgage. In Washington, D.C., our electric bills increased 41 percent over the past five years (from July 2005 to July 2010). Small businesses and nonprofits need to stabilize their energy costs just to stay afloat.
Make solar energy accessible to all, reduce the costs and remove the barriers.Costs are coming down anyway, but group buying provides efficiencies of scale and helps installers deal more effectively with permitting agencies.
Create an Organizational Structure to Support the Mission
We’re registered as a co-operative under D.C. law. Unlike 501 (c)(3) organizations, we don’t raise funds, manage, govern or report to the IRS. But we can lobby.
Find a Good Web Developer
The website is an indispensable communication tool. It not only gets the word out, but it helps to pool resources and avoid duplication of effort. Sample our sites:
Participation is Voluntary
People do what they’re comfortable doing.We have few meetings and don’t brow beat those who don’t showup. We avoid asking for money, unless it’s for something concrete like our co-op yard signs.
Energy and information flow in both directions
Few come to the co-op knowing a lot about renewables or going solar. It’s easy to go to our periodic meetings and ask questions of those who’ve been there and done it.
Start small and focused, but broaden the base
Now that we’ve succeeded with homeowners and have expanded our political clout into other neighborhoods, we can focus on the energy issues faced by renters, multifamily buildings, small businesses and nonprofit organizations.
We don’t exercise control over sister co-ops, but we share what we learn and act collectively in the political arena.
– ROBERT ROBINSON