Solar United Neighbors recently announced that it has begun recruiting Saint Paul residents to take part in a cooperative buying plan that provides clean energy expertise and saves money on solar panel installations.

With chapters in states across the country, the nonprofit organization is seeking homeowners and business owners to form cooperatives that contract with local solar firms. While Solar United Neighbors has previously created co-ops in Minneapolis, much of its work has been in outstate Minnesota and a handful of Twin Cities suburbs.

Minnesota program director Bobby King said he looks forward to working with Saint Paul homeowners and business owners for the first time as part of a new Twin Cities area co-op. He said Saint Paul has plenty of rooftops ready for solar and citizens interested in supporting clean energy and reducing utility bills.

“We find there are a lot of people who’ve been thinking about solar for a long time, and they just need some help on their side,” he said. “It’s like so many large home purchases that you only do once or twice, and you can’t get good at it without some help.”

King wants to attract 150 homeowners and business owners to form the new co-op by the end of winter. If more sign up, he will add another group. Members can sign up for the co-op for free, though Solar United Neighbors also offers paid memberships that offer more individualized advice.

solar power
Bobby King, Minnesota program director of Solar United Neighbors, is working to enlist Saint Paul homeowners to the organization’s fold. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The organization will hold a free online informational session for Twin Cities residents at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, January 7. Registration is available by visiting solarunitedneighbors.org/minnesota/events/.

Saint Paul has welcomed the group’s efforts, especially since the city’s climate action plan calls for cleaner energy sources.

“This is a great idea, and anything we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move toward cleaner energy sources will help Saint Paul do our part to meet our climate goals,” said Russ Stark, the city’s chief resilience officer.

The nonprofit organization holds online webinars to get potential co-op members acquainted with solar energy, the installation process, and the connection their systems have to make with Xcel Energy.

King said tax benefits and incentives continue to make solar systems more affordable. In 2021, new solar panel owners will receive a 26 percent tax credit. He said another cost savings is that panel prices have declined over the years as technology has improved.

According to EnergySage, the average cost of solar panel installation in Minnesota ranges from $13,000-$18,000, not including tax credits and other incentives.

When homeowners and businesses with solar panels produce more power than they consume, Xcel Energy buys the excess energy, King said. The utility’s Solar Rewards program offers additional incentives for low-income residents, he said.  

Once co-ops reach 30 members, Solar United Neighbors solicits bids from solar installers. A co-op committee forms to choose from among the finalists. The committee will “look at the price, at the quality of equipment, at the years of experience, at whether or not (the installers) are local,” King said. “They’ll look at commitment to racial justice and diversity— all of that in picking an installer who’s the best fit for the co-op.”

“We can’t tell you we’re getting absolutely a rock-bottom price, but you’re getting a good deal,” King said. “You can be sure that the installer is going to be vetted, and doing this with other folks is fun.”

The group will check the homes of co-op members to ensure solar panels will work on their roofs. The chosen solar company will then conduct site visits to size the systems and determine the costs before scheduling installations. At any point, co-op members can decide they no longer want to add solar to their homes or businesses, King said.

Group purchasing saves as much as 15 percent on the cost for homeowners and businesses. After the installations, the organization continues to work with members to answer their questions or solve any issues, King said.

Minneapolis resident John Farrell purchased his solar installation through Solar United Neighbors. The nationally known clean energy expert and co-director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance worked with the nonprofit because he said he wanted the advantages of co-op buying and guidance.

“What’s great about the Solar United model is if you have questions, there’s a built-in way to get answers from someone without a financial interest in how they answer,” said Farrell, who also serves on the group’s national board. “This organization is really motivated to help you have a good experience and get a good deal.”

King said there is another compelling reason to participate in cooperative buying. “We can’t tell you we’re getting absolutely a rock-bottom price, but you’re getting a good deal,” he said. “You can be sure that the installer is going to be vetted, and doing this with other folks is fun.”

— Frank Jossi

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