Going solar without going alone

Solar Co-op
Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light hosted an information session about group solar purchasing on May 21. Submitted photo

Katie Christiansen is somewhat of a technical expert on residential rooftop solar power despite owning no property herself. This spring, she has been going door-to-door in neighborhoods around St. Louis Park, advocating for her property-owning neighbors to consider installing renewable solar power.

Christiansen is not just advocating for stand-alone rooftop solarization. She is helping to jumpstart a local “solar co-op,” bringing homeowners together to collectively make solar purchases.

The solar co-op is a project spearheaded by Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit based in D.C. that supports group solar purchasing through technical assistance and educational resources. By approaching solarization as a group, the co-op can get a more competitive rate from solar installers while building a base of individuals ready to put pressure on local energy policy, explained Ben Dalman, Solar United’s media and communications manager. “Solar is a very social thing,” Dalman added. “A person is much more likely to go solar if they know someone else who has.”

In order to start the purchasing process, each solar co-op needs at least a dozen or so members. Right now Dalman estimates that the Minneapolis-St. Louis Park group is hovering around 10, thanks in no small part to Christiansen and other youth outreach efforts.

Christiansen got involved through Solar United’s partnership with iMatter, a statewide youth organization. iMatter has a longstanding connection with St. Louis Park High School, where Christiansen is president of the school environmental club, called Roots and Shoots. For the solar co-op, these two organizations have also teamed up with Minneapolis-based sustainable energy nonprofit the Great Plains Institute, which provided technical assistance for a recently released Solar Suitability Assessment Tool as part of implementing the St. Louis Park Climate Action Plan.

Together the three groups received a youth outreach grant to connect local youth to solarization efforts, another innovative output of the city’s Climate Action Plan, which has been recognized as the most aggressive in the state of Minnesota. Since then, Christiansen has helped organize door-knocking efforts covering about 300 homes.

‘Apples to apples’

Jean Buckley is not exactly sure where she first learned about the option for group solar purchasing, but she suspects credit goes to one of the many environmental e-newsletters she subscribes to. In many ways, Buckley is the perfect candidate for the solar group-buy model. For one, she is already a committed solar energy user; she outfitted the garage at her Minnehaha Falls home with solar panels about 10 years ago. Until recently, Buckley’s garage-top solar panels produced enough kilowatts to cover all of her electricity needs, and for many years she never even saw an electricity bill. But since she purchased an electric car a year ago, Buckley’s electricity usage has doubled and she decided to go back on the market for more solar.

The main roadblock for Buckley was in navigating the purchasing process. Trying to parse through her options for different solar installers “is like comparing apples to apples,” she explained.

And so when Buckley learned about Solar United Neighbors, she was struck with relief. “You can join this co-op, and they’ll go out and do it for you.”

Buckley doesn’t need to be convinced that solar is something worth investing in; she simply needs advice to guide her through the decision-making process. “I’m not a geek, I’m a tree hugger,” she said. “I need some technical hand-holding sometimes.”

Solar United is not the only solar group-purchasing game in town. Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light (MIPL), a Southwest Minneapolis-based climate justice organization, also launched its solar group-buy program earlier this year.

Emily Minges, the MIPL Solar Outreach Manager, is leading the organizing and recruitment for this program. As Minges explained, MIPL’s group solar purchasing is not only helping people switch to renewables but also asking critical questions about how that switch happens. For example, MIPL only considers partnerships with community-based solar installers and weighs bids based on ethical hiring practices and workforce diversity.

While ensuring that MIPL’s solar vetting process is thorough and intentional, Minges also has some looming deadlines in mind. The Federal Solar Tax Credit will shrink at the end of 2019, which means that all the solar installation paperwork for group-buy participants must be signed by the end of this year to minimize costs. In order to meet that deadline, Minges plans to close recruitment by the end of July. She wants to have at least 20 people by then, hopefully more. “But we want to be realistic about expectations,” she said.

Solar rooftops to solar gardens

The group-purchasing model is just starting to take hold in a state already flush with solar projects. Minnesota has been furiously growing its stock of community solar gardens (CSGs) since 2013, when the Legislature passed a bill to incentivize community solar and require Xcel Energy to buy into them. Since its passage, Minnesota’s community solar program has grown into the largest in the country, with more than 12,000 individual subscribers, as reported by Xcel at the end of 2018.

Community solar gardens are large solar arrays perched on roofs (or other open spaces), and anyone in the area can subscribe to them. Through a credit system, the cost of the power generated though solar is then deducted from the subscriber’s energy bill.

De-linking residential solar from personal private property is what differentiates community solar from Solar United’s solar co-ops, which still rely on individually installed solar panels. As EnergySage, an online solar marketplace, explains, group-purchasing strategies are easily confused with community solar, but “group purchasing does not result in a communal project whose benefits are shared — once completed, each participant benefits separately from a separate system.”

As Timothy Den Herder-Thomas, Cooperative Energy Futures’ general manager, explained in a video produced through the Just Solar Coalition, “that means that people who don’t own property, people whose roofs aren’t good for solar, people who don’t have the money to afford solar up front can all get their energy from the sun.”

While community solar is more accessible than property-by-property solar power, class barriers persist.

A recent report submitted to the Public Utilities Commission by Xcel Energy explains that, while community solar reduces costs by scaling up compared with individual rooftop installation, CSGs can’t match the savings of utility-scale arrays. Because Minnesota law requires Xcel to buy into less efficient CSGs, the company estimates that their customers end up subsidizing the program at a price of about $36 per year. And, because by-wattage business and government account for most of the CSG solar subscriptions, the program’s long-term energy savings remain skewed toward entities that can afford the upfront costs. These factors are among the reasons that Xcel, backed by several state legislators, is pushing to reform the state CSG program.

The public option

While acknowledging that community solar has limitations, energy justice advocates see benefits in driving hard bargains with private utilities. At the same time that community solar legislation was being debated in the state Legislature, Minneapolis organizers were mobilizing toward an even more aggressive energy mandate: public energy.

With the city’s contract with Xcel and Centerpoint Energy set to expire in 2014, proponents of community-owned power campaigned in 2013 to establish a Minneapolis public utility. Community pressure to explore municipalization was largely led by the Minneapolis Energy Options Coalition, which electrified public debate not only by presenting an opportunity for doubling down on renewable energy commitments, but also by interrogating how and by whom that energy is controlled.

While the resolution never reached a public vote, the city did approve the commission of an Energy Pathways Study to explore options for achieving a sustainable energy vision. And through pressure from the prospect of a public utility competitor, the city was able to reach aggressive agreements with each of the utilities to ramp up renewable energy commitments.

The Municipal Energy Options Coalition, since renamed Community Power, writes on their website that “this story is a strong example of how grassroots pressure is essential for monopoly utilities to move on environment and community priorities.”

It is in this way that solar co-ops, CSGs and public utilities can find overlap in both goals and process. Christiansen knows that the Solar United model won’t work for everyone, but it is one tool in a suite of practices that can support a renewable energy transition and pressure system-wide change. As she explained, door-knocking with Solar United is about saying: “Depending on your situation, it could be a good option.”