A Solar Cooperative: How it Grew

Solar Coop

(From left) Mt. Pleasant Solar Co-op founders Jeff Morley, Diego Arene-Morley, Walter Lynn and Anya Schoolman spoke at the Solarama expo in September 2009. Photo: Rick Reinhard

By ROBERT ROBINSON

This is a story about two determined teenage boys, a politically savvy mom and the movement they created that has put solar arrays on dozens of roofs in the urban heart of Washington, D.C.

The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood lies 2 miles north of the White House. It’s a middle- and working-class neighborhood of old row houses, most dating from the early 1920s. About 100 of these houses — roughly one-tenth — now have grid-tied solar systems. Half a dozen other D.C. neighborhoods have emulated this success.

Once Upon a Time

In September 2006, after attending a screening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” best friends Diego Arene-Morley and Walter Lynn — then 12 years old — sat at a kitchen table with Diego’s dad, Jeff Morley, and Walter’s mom, Anya Schoolman. They wanted to know how global warming would affect them and what they might do about it. “Can we go solar?” Walter asked.

Anya replied, “We already looked into solar. It’s expensive and really complicated. If we are going to do all the work to figure this out, we might as well do the whole neighborhood. Are you guys in?”

They were. Thus, the Mt. Pleasant Solar Co-op was conceived. Anya had the experience to launch the movement. After earning a master’s degree in international relations and environmental policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, she held senior policy positions in the U.S. Department of the Interior and went on to advise foundations and nonprofits on environmental strategy and program design.

  • A few neighbors joined the co-op right away and the group developed a strategic plan:
  • Sign up every neighbor interested in going solar;
  • Find an installer willing to offer the group a big discount;
  • Identify friends in government and business and environmental organizations willing to support legislation to create a rebate program; and,
  • Start installing those panels.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. At the time, photovoltaic (PV) arrays were installing for about $8 per watt, or about $24,000 for a 3-kilowatt (kW) residential system. With no federally or locally funded rebate programs yet in place and electricity retailing at about 14 cents per kilowatt-hour, it looked as if the payback period might be 10 years. And it was questionable whether the neighborhood’s 85-year-old roofs would bear the load of solar arrays without substantial structural and water- sealing work. The few solar installers who had experience with the flat roofs on Washington row houses weren’t sure they wanted to install in the city. Finally, political support for local legislation to provide cash rebates for solar systems got shaky when rumors began circulating in the Council of the District of Columbia (the Council) that only rich, tree-hugging homeowners wanted solar panels.

See their tips on How to Start a Successful Solar Co-op

Anya Counseled Us to Take Baby Steps …

Diego and Walter leafleted the neighborhood with adolescent zeal. Two hundred members signed up and provided electric consumption data. Members then conducted energy audits and began conserving electricity. Walter and Diego ran comparison tests and identified the most efficient and dependable compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Keith Ware, owner of Eco Green Living, sold us $3,000 of these CFLs below cost and we all went on an efficiency binge.

Cost Benefit

2010 Estimated Cost / Benefits

Anya climbed up and surveyed more than 70 roofs. Installer Chris Graves, of Switch Energy, ran financial pro formas that showed, given expected federal incentives and renewable energy credits, a payback period less than six years. Legal firms Skadden, Arps and Kaye Scholer stepped up with pro bono legal services on regulatory, legislative, liability and contracting matters.

The District of Columbia already had a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), established in 2005. Anya lobbied relentlessly with the Council for solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), with the result that they were included in Councilmember Mary Cheh’s Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 (CAEA). CAEA expanded the RPS (it now calls for 20 percent renewable by 2020, with a 0.4 percent solar carve-out and high alternative compliance payments). The law also created a Renewable Energy Incentive Program (REIP), providing a $3-per-watt rebate for small renewable energy systems funded at $2 million per year from utility-bill surcharges. It really helped when federal rules removed the caps on rebates to permit them to cover 30 percent of the total cost of a solar install.

At last, we had a rebate program in place! Installations went forward. Creative ways were found to deal with structural issues — for instance arrays could anchor on the load-bearing “party walls” between adjacent (and connected) homes.

Coop install

The co-op’s first installation was built by Standard Solar for Tom Kelly (foreground). He’s talking with electrician Amacire Bocoum. Photo: Rick Reinhard

By September 2009, we celebrated our first 50 systems with a 12-home solar tour and a Solarama festival to promote our installers and related businesses. Two months later, the co-op formalized relationships with solar installers and neighborhood job trainers to stabilize REIP funding for green-collar jobs.

The program grew. Anya helped to organize sister co-ops in the Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Petworth, Shepherd Park, Palisades and Ward 8 neighborhoods (this would give us a wider base of political support). Articles on the co-op appeared in the Scientific American blog, Grist and CNBC blog. The Discovery Channel produced a program called “Powering the Future, Leading the Charge,” featuring the co-op. By the close of 2010 we watched the completion of our 100th solar installation in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.

There have been bureaucratic and political problems. We have had to work vigilantly with the members of the Council to keep the city government from hijacking REIP funds to spend on other programs. In the spring of 2010 we conducted two lobbying offensives to recover program funding and hire staff to clear the backlog of REIP applications for FY 2010 and 2011.

Utility Issues

The 2008 action by the Council also established a net-metering requirement, but the Public Service Commission (PSC) didn’t issue final rules until June 2010. So co-op members waited month after sunny month for the utility company, Pepco (originally the Potomac Electric Power Co.), to install meters that would measure current in both directions. Until those meters come online, systems that produce more electricity than the home uses produce exaggerated bills. The old meters don’t calculate negative numbers — all electric flow is additive. Since solar inverters track our electric production but not consumption, and the old meters track our consumption but not solar electricity passing back to the grid, our monthly bills are all but unverifiable.

As utilities move toward “critical peak” pricing, net-metering debates return. Why assess transmission and distribution charges for surplus PV power, if it will reduce peak load and if it’s not being “wheeled” to other distribution circuits?

Meanwhile, Pepco received $149.4 million in federal stimulus funding for smart grid design. We want to see the company incorporate renewable-friendly standards and best practices regarding net-metering and solar credits, such as those proposed by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. This effort may require some years of adversarial processes before the PSC, unless national or local legislation is enacted to set policies supportive of distributed generation.

 

Robert Robinson is a communications consultant, formerly chief of staff to a councilmember and an administrator in the Office of the mayor in the Washington, D.C., government. He lobbies for and is active with the Mt. Pleasant Solar Co-op and with D.C. Solar United Neighborhoods. A graduate of Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, Robinson attended Fettes College in Edinburgh, Scotland. He lives with his wife in Mt. Pleasant. They went solar in 2009. Contact him at robrobin@me.com.

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