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Solar Power Co-Op Recruiting Columbus Homeowners To Reduce Installation Costs

Mryia and Todd Williams showing off their solar panel installation.
Nick Evans
/
WOSU
Mryia and Todd Williams showing off their solar panel installation.

There are 42 solar panels on the roof of Mryia and Todd Williams’ home in Galloway.

“We’ve got 18 panels on the South facing side and 12 and 12 on the garage East and West,” Todd Williams said.

The couple bought the system that powers their home and two cars last year thanks to Solar United Neighbors, the company organizing Columbus’ solar co-op.

Mryia and Todd Williams' home from above.
Mryia and Todd Williams
Mryia and Todd Williams' home from above.

“Starting in March once we had all of our equipment so we can track all of the power we’ve started having net zero bills,” Mryia Williams said. “So we’ve had one bill that was a total of $10 that was mainly the distribution charges and then last month AEP actually owed us money.”

Since then, Mryia has started working for the non-profit on homeowners association outreach.

The idea is pretty simple: by pooling buyers, they can get a better deal on the cost of panels and installation. It’s still a significant investment for those who go forward, but organizers helping them navigate the process and clear hurdles like inspections and permitting.

The co-op hosts a series of meetings to share information and answer questions. Once they’ve collected enough interested people, they put out a call for bids from solar installers. Co-op members choose a bidder, and then people who want to go forward get that group rate. Those who change their mind can walk away, with no penalty.

“It’s no pressure, no sales tactics,” Todd Williams said. “It’s all informational. Just learning about it without any sales pressure at all.”

Todd and Mryia Williams
Nick Evans
Todd and Mryia Williams

Prior to signing up, Todd and Mryia had been collecting bids on their own, and they’re quick to mention how much easier the process was once they had someone to help guide them. They even got a bid from the company the co-op eventually selected. They estimate the co-op saved them about 12% on the project.

Tristan Rader heads up Solar United Neighbors operations in Ohio and he serves as a city councilmember in Lakewood, near Cleveland.

“If you were to get 50 people together and walk into a local business you’re probably going to get a very good deal right? The same principle works here, we end up performing about 10-20% below the market,” Radar said

Rader says typically 15-30% of the people who get involved actually install a system. The cost for average system runs from $15,000-$20,000. There’s a federal tax break that helps reduce the burden, but no similar subsidies at the state level. In general Rader says homeowners will break even on the investment in 10 to 12 years.

Solar United showed up in Ohio in 2016, and since then they’ve set up nearly 30 co-ops like the one they’re running in Columbus right now. Most of their funding comes from philanthropic grants, and they collect a fee from installers, $600 per signed contract. Rader said they’re also receiving $20,000 from the city to organize the Columbus’ co-op.

Although the city isn’t subsidizing the program for participants, Public utilities assistant director Jeff Ortega said they’re keeping close tabs on how it rolls out.

“That will be a very important tool in terms of finding out what everyday people think about prospects for solar so certainly this a program that I think will be watched,” Ortega said.

Kevin O’Neil is planning to attend the next co-op meeting later this week.

“We heard about it from one of our neighbors,” O’Neil said. “We’d been thinking about it anyway for a long time. Just didn’t know where to start.”

Kevin O'Neil standing outside his home.
Nick Evans
Kevin O'Neil standing outside his home.

He’s wondering about battery storage and cost, but his biggest question mark might be feasibility. He lives in Clintonville on a street lined with large shady trees. Outside, he acknowledges that might limit his options a bit.

“The trees do get in the way so to speak but what we’re thinking of is with the garage in particular putting up the panels up there,” O’Neil describes. “Because the other part of the house, the house itself, probably would not have enough sun.”

Sill a garage set up might not be a bad thing. O’Neil has an electric vehicle, and one his primary aims for going solar is to keep the car charged without pulling from the grid.

The next meeting for the Columbus co-op will be this Thursday at 6 p.m. on Zoom.