The thunderstorm and fire engines outside White Bear Lake City Hall did not stop Solar United Neighbors of Minnesota from holding a meeting about the new Mahtomedi area solar co-op. Around 15 community members battled the rain July 12 to educate themselves on solar and what a solar co-op looks like. Solar United Neighbors held a similar meeting in Mahtomedi on May 31 in which 32 community members showed up.
Virginia Rutter, program director of Solar United Neighbors of Minnesota, listed the benefits of going solar and going solar through a co-op that Solar United Neighbors provides.
“Our goal is to increase education about solar and fight for energy rights in the areas that we have co-ops,” Rutter said.
Solar United Neighbors got started in Washington, D.C., when a family wanted to convert to solar energy use and could not afford it. So they went door to door to get other people to join them in hopes of getting a reduced price. After getting the residents of around 50 neighborhood homes to join them, they qualified for bulk purchasing, making it affordable for everyone. Afterward, the group kept getting calls from others looking to explore the bulk purchase concept, and Solar United Neighbors was born. Today, Solar United Neighbors is located in eight states, including Minnesota.
Mahtomedi is not the first city to get a solar co-op. There are co-ops happening in Minneapolis, Bemidji, Apple Valley, Rochester and Kandiyohi County.
Solar United Neighbors works to leverage the power of bulk purchasing to help community members save money on solar energy. The process is free up until a person signs on the dotted line to have a solar array installed on their house. The solar co-op process takes around eight months to complete, which gives community members a chance to listen and learn before deciding if going solar is something they want.
In order to convert to solar power, the home and property has to be fit to be solar. The solar system has to be facing south and needs enough space to fit on the roof (or wherever the panels are installed) in a shadeless area.
“We want to move away from fossil fuels and go to more renewable energy in our community,” noted Mahtomedi councilman and solar proponent Jeff Ledermann. He is helping lead the effort to expand the use of solar energy in the area.
Celia and Ron Wirth wanted to go solar 15 years ago in their home in Grant. What the Wirths wanted, however, they could not quite afford. The $75,000 needed to go off the grid and create their own solar energy by storing it in a battery made for an expensive investment back then.
Today, the Wirths have a solar array in the backyard of their 8.25-acre property for which a $25,000 tax credit was able to cover half the cost. The Wirths spend zero on their electricity bill and get 10 percent back from the power company because they generate 110 percent of what they use in their home. They installed the system about a year ago.
The Wirths did not go off the grid and use a battery. Instead, they are on the grid with Xcel Energy. “There were no frustrations in installing; the people were fast, efficient and friendly,” Celia Wirth said.
When thinking about whether or not to invest in a solar system, the tax credit can be a major factor in the decision. Xcel Energy offers a tax credit of 30 percent off the initial installation of a solar system. A person signing up with the Solar United Neighbors co-op is already getting a discount because of the bulk purchasing power. There is also a $0.08 per kilowatt-hour production reward. Xcel Energy will pay $0.08 per kw/hr for the solar system’s first 10 years. Solar United Neighbors projected that since the average solar system is 7kw, the check for the production reward would be about $650 a year.
“The tax credits are huge incentives for people on the fence to finally go solar,” Rutter said. “It draws a lot of interest, too.”
The expenses in a solar system are not charged by how many panels are in an array, but by how many watts per hour the array produces. The Minnesota average cost is $3.75 per watt. The smallest solar arrays produce 2kw and the largest produce 12kw. Using the average Minnesota cost of $3.75 per watt, Solar United Neighbors estimated sample costs for both cash and loan purchases for solar systems. The size of the profit depends on how much the solar system produces; however, bigger systems clearly cost more.
Now, what if the power goes out? Just because a home uses solar does not mean that the home avoids power outages if it is on the grid. Being on the grid means if the grid goes out, so does the power. To avoid going dark when the power goes out, solar users can install a backup battery. The backup battery stores surplus electricity, which keeps the lights on when the neighborhood goes dark. The drawback to the backup battery is cost. It costs around $9,000 to install a backup battery for storage, more than a third of the price of a solar array installation.
“It just does not make sense to really go off the grid when you live in the cities,” said Efrain Santiago, a White Bear Lake resident and solar user. “I can see getting solar up at your cabin in the middle of nowhere, but not in the cities.”
Santiago installed a 3kw, 12-panel solar system on his home two years ago. He remembers when he first bought his home, the sun would beat down on his property. “I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow this house has a lot of sun,'” Santiago said.
A few years before Santiago installed his solar system, he visited Southeast Asia and saw solar panels all over the place. “Going solar had always been an attractive thing for me,” he said. “After going to Southeast Asia, I wanted to get solar panels on my home.”
The problems the Santiagos and the Wirths have faced with their solar system have been minimal. Besides huge snowfalls, trimming trees and making sure the solar arrays are not an eyesore for neighbors, choosing to convert to solar has saved both families a lot of money on their electric bills and earned rewards back from Xcel Energy. Both families say they could not be happier with their decision to change up their power source. They also believe the solar system has added value to their homes.
Because Solar United Neighbors is forming a co-op in the area, there are opportunities to install more solar systems in Mahtomedi and White Bear. The benefits are not limited to residents of Mahtomedi, either.
Solar United Neighbors hopes to get 30 residents from the surrounding areas of Mahtomedi, White Bear and Stillwater to make the co-op complete.
“The long-term vision is to get the majority of the rooftops that can go solar to do so,” Ledermann said.
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