Late last year, well after the winter chill had settled into Minneapolis and my seasonal boredom had taken hold, I was perusing the Nextdoor app for casual entertainment. Between the random questions that would be better suited for Google rather than a neighborhood app (“How do I bake an apple pie?”) and bitter fights about dog walking and snow shoveling etiquette, I spotted something unexpected: a post about a solar co-op.
Organized by a nonprofit called Solar United Neighbors (SUN), the post was gathering households for a Twin Cities solar co-op, a group of roughly 50 to 100 local households all interested in going solar around the same time. The co-op solicits competitive bids from local installers to get discounted bulk pricing from quality installers. “In solar adoption, there is power in numbers,” the U.S. Solar Energy Technologies Office explains: Solar co-ops not only allow residents to take advantage of group discounts on installing rooftop solar arrays, they can also help reduce “upfront installation costs and ‘soft costs’ like permitting.”
My partner and I had been interested in installing solar panels on our little house for years, but with other projects like building a garage taking up immediate time and money, the timing had never seemed right. But, in early November, I signed up for the co-op anyway. Who knows what could come of it or when we’d get a chance to join a co-op again. Plus, it was free.
Then, in mid-January, SUN reached out to let us know that the selection committee was reviewing bids from local solar installers after SUN had vetted the bids. By early February, an installer, iSolar, was selected. The following day, iSolar scheduled a time to meet with my partner and I to create an individual proposal for our house. We had the proposal in hand a few weeks later.
Everything I had read previously estimated that getting solar installed would cost at least $15,000 – likely more. The estimate from iSolar for our 3.6kW system comprising nine panels came in at several thousand dollars less than that. Jubilant at the number, we promptly signed on the dotted line. Once the weather warmed and summer arrived, our system was installed in June and powered on in July. We now have solar, years earlier than I thought we’d ever be able to afford and arrange it.
Our house is just one of thousands around the country who have gone solar by using a co-op model in partnership with groups like Solar United Neighbors, United Power, SunSmart and Dixie Power. As of 2020, co-ops like these have contributed $93 million to the solar industry in the U.S.
Anna Butler stands with installers outsider her home. Butler was the first participant to receive an installation as part of the D.C. Solar for All Program. (Photo courtesy of Solar United Neighbors)
By leveraging bulk pricing, co-op members get competitive rates alongside support from knowledgeable and experienced organizers without any commitments unless or until an individual household accepts and signs their unique proposal. Plus, the solar installer that our co-op selected worked with a local credit union to offer financing options so that members without cash on hand can still participate.
To date, SUN alone has helped roughly 7,000 households across the U.S. go solar — all thanks to the gumption of two teenagers back in 2007.
It was then that SUN’s soon-to-be founder Anya Schoolman’s son, Walter, and his friend Diego, watched “An Inconvenient Truth” in high school. When the duo asked their parents if they could go solar as a result, Schoolman discovered that the process was a complicated and expensive one. She wondered, though, if bulk pricing might make going solar more accessible. The boys began door knocking in their Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in central Washington, D.C. In two weeks, 50 neighbors had signed onto the idea. Two years later, Schoolman and 44 of her neighbors went solar, marking the beginning of what would develop into the national nonprofit Solar Neighbors United.
But just getting a critical mass of people interested in going solar isn’t the only challenge. From state and local policies to HOA rules and regulations, getting solar often takes more than just interest.
“It’s not enough to just say, ‘Hey, we want to go solar.’ There’s sometimes challenges and barriers that we help folks overcome,” says Ben Delman, SUN’s communications director. “It might be a HOA (homeowners association) that’s not letting people install solar panels or a city permitting department that’s just being really slow in approving permits. It might be utilities dragging out the interconnection. There are all of these choke points that can make it more difficult to go solar.”
But with a group of local households all lobbying elected officials or pressing for new HOA rules rather than one individual person pushing alone, these hurdles can be more easily overcome together. For example, SUN recently worked with solar supporters and installers in Florida to get the governor to veto a bill in April that would have ended net metering — the ability to sell solar power back to the grid to offset the cost of electricity usage — in the state. “We generated literally thousands and thousands and thousands of letters to legislators and the governor,” Delman says.
SUN also proactively establishes partnerships with municipalities to make it easier for people to go solar as well. “When I started in my role on June 7 of last year, one of the first emails I had in my inbox was from SUN,” says Evelyn Bauman, the director of sustainability for the city of South Bend, Indiana of the email she got from Dan Robinson, a SUN program associate for Indiana.
Robinson told her about SUN’s Northern Indiana co-op and that what they were really looking for was a city partner for hosting their information sessions. “Of course, this was of interest to us as a city because we have a climate action plan that states our goal of going carbon neutral by 2050,” Bauman says. “We were very happy to partner with SUN to bring that solar education to our community.”
Together, the city and SUN hosted information sessions at local parks. The city pointed solar-curious residents to SUN’s webinars and created a dedicated Go Solar In South Bend webpage.
By last August, SUN had a 19-household co-op of South Bend homeowners ready to go solar. In the future, Bauman says that she hopes to work with SUN to offer discounted solar to low- and moderate-income households in South Bend – the way that SUN did in Indianapolis in 2021.
In the meantime, Bauman and SUN are planning a one-year anniversary celebration for last summer’s South Bend co-op. “We just want to bring everyone together who has gone solar over the last 12 months to share photos and stories,” she says.
Thanks to their new solar systems, the cohort is already “thinking more critically about their energy use at home, experimenting with using appliances at different times or unplugging appliances,” Bauman says. “It’s been really great to see those ripple effects.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.