Downtown Urbana, Illinois.

Lauro Maia / Creative Commons

Downtown Urbana, Illinois.

Group solar purchases helping Midwest cities cut carbon emissions

An Illinois city is hoping that by making solar more affordable for its residents it can help meet its own goals of reducing greenhouse gases.

The key? A solar group-purchase program that officially kicked off this December.

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) has already run a successful solar group buy throughout Milwaukee, one that encouraged 98 homeowners and business owners to install solar panels largely through the enticement of lower prices that come with volume buying.

Now, the MREA is partnering with the city of Urbana, Illinois, to organize a similar solar group buy in surrounding Champaign County.

Mike Hornitschek, director of strategic development and sales with St. Louis-based StraightUp Solar, the solar contractor chosen to handle new installations resulting from the group buy, said he expects homeowners and business owners in Champaign County to embrace solar once they understand how quickly their lower energy bills will help them cover the costs.

"Solar itself is not complicated at all," Hornitschek said. "It's pretty straightforward technology. People have a hang-up with the price. That's why negotiating a bulk buy is critical. In the solar business, components are a commodity in many ways. The more you buy, the better pricing you can get. Our vision for this program is to spread the message about solar and to inspire more installations while saving business and homeowners money. It's a win-win for everyone."

Power hours

To encourage businesses and homeowners to invest in solar panels, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and the city of Urbana are in the middle of hosting what they call Solar Power Hours. During these sessions, solar experts explain the benefits of solar, how solar power can lower the monthly power bills of building owners and the typical costs involved in installing panels.

The power hours also explain how the group-buy process works and how much money it can save owners.

Scott Tess, environmental sustainability manager for the city of Urbana, said the first power hour, held in early December, attracted a big crowd, inspiring hope that this group buy will result in several solar installations throughout Champaign County.

"We had more than 50 people in a room that wasn't designed to hold that many," Tess said. "The turnout was fantastic. Lots of people were excited about having a streamlined way to get solar panels on their homes and businesses. We also had people who are sitting on the fence and are thinking about solar. They came out to get more information and a competitive price. This might push them to install solar."

Peter Murphy, market development coordinator for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, said his group and the city of Urbana will continue to hold power hours throughout March and into early April. Businesses and homeowners in Champaign County then have until May 30 of next year to sign up for an installation at the lower costs made possible by the group buy.

Murphy said an average residential solar system usually costs $3.50 to $4 for every watt of power that the system provides. Because of the lower prices negotiated through the group buy program that cost will drop closer to $3 a watt, Murphy said.

Hornitschek with StraightUp Solar said people who participate in the group buy program will save from 10 percent to 15 percent or more compared to what they'd pay when shopping for a solar installation on their own.

Murphy said how much utility bills drop will depend on how large of a system they install and how much energy the customer typically uses during a month. But Murphy said that many participants will see their power bills drop by about 65 percent to 70 percent.

Hornitschek said these power savings are an important inspiration to building owners. It means that, with the addition of municipal and federal tax credits, most home and business owners participating in the Champaign County program will be able to generate enough energy savings to recover the costs of a solar installation in seven to 10 years.

"That makes this a truly compelling offer for people," Hornitschek said.

Prior success

Murphy said he expects the Champaign County group-buy program to be just as successful as the similar program his association spearheaded in Milwaukee, which resulted in 98 solar installations for a total of more than 320 kilowatts over three years.

"We have developed this myth around solar that it is something for the future," Murphy said. "But we are seeing that once people have the knowledge in hand, and once you are working with a community that is solar-ready, it is no longer a thing for the future. It is happening now."

Hornitschek said StraightUp Solar expects to be able to complete installations within 45 to 60 days of receiving a signed contract.

No one knows yet how many people in Champaign County will sign up for solar. Hornitschek said that his company did receive its first contract for an installation just a week after the first Solar Power Hour held on Dec. 2.

But Tess with the city of Urbana is hoping for a big response. Such a response will help the city meet its goals of reducing greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

"Reducing greenhouse gases and advancing the renewable energy market is one of our many goals," Tess said. "Our purpose with this program is to make installing solar as streamlined as possible. Once people understand how easy it can be, we think they will embrace the idea of solar."

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