Solar group buy exceeds expectations.
Solar Iowa County, a grassroots residential and commercial purchasing group, has completed its first solar purchasing program with sign ups for solar installations far exceeding what organizers anticipated. At last count, 32 households participated, which will generate a total of 239 Kilowatts (KW) of clean power a year.
“We are really pleased,” said Paul Ohlrogge, Area UW-Extension Director of Grant, Green, Iowa and Lafayette Counties, one of the program’s sponsors. “It grew bigger than we ever expected. We held eight educational sessions from March through August, and we had really good turnouts.”
Ohlrogge found it very interesting that the ‘group buy’ concept has usually been promoted in urban areas.
“They focus on 10 to 15 city blocks of a place like Milwaukee, which could have more people than Dodgeville has in the whole town. This is one of the first times they have done a group buy in a rural area, and we had people from all over the county and beyond participating.”
Solar Iowa County was sponsored by UW-Extension, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Sustain Iowa County, and coordinated by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) to help home and business owners pool their buying power for discounts that make solar electricity more affordable.
With the assistance of Peter Murphy, solar program manager from MREA, Solar Iowa County selected Eagle Point Solar of Dubuque as the installer, and goals were set such that if the buying group coordinated installation of 50, 100 or 150 KW – there would be a price break in the form of a rebate for all members of the group buy.
“We were hoping we could surpass the first benchmark of 50 KW,” Chuck Tennessen of Sustain Iowa County said. “It took a while. People didn’t sign up at first because they were investigating their own situations. We didn’t reach 50 until sometime in June. That was a relief. The program was doing the right thing.”
“Then it got to be early August, and we got a message that it looked like we could get to 100,” Tennessen continued. “We didn’t reach that mark till about two weeks into August, but as the deadline approached, people decided to take the leap and it accelerated rapidly. It was like watching a drama unfold.”
“It shows there is a real thirst for locally generated electricity,” Dave Clutter, executive director of Driftless Area Land Conservancy added. “Distributed energy is really the future. It shows that we can and want to generate energy locally. The solar industry is the fastest growing energy sector in Wisconsin.”
“Eagle Point,” Ohlrogge said, “was really quick at going out and getting the data for each home owner or business about what they had paid for their utility rates the previous year and were able to design individual systems to accommodate individual electricity needs with the concept of not building more than was needed.”
This was Eagle Point Solar’s first group buy project.
“We enjoyed working with the coordinators and the customers,” Mike Brummer, of Eagle Point Solar said. “I think it exceeded everyone’s expectations. We are pleased, and everyone else is too.”
The whole process from signing a contract to watching the electric meter run backwards is usually about 10 weeks.
“A lot of people waited till the last week of August to sign, so they are in the beginning stages,” Brummer said. “Those who signed up early are powered on or waiting permission from their utility to operate.”
Joe and June Meudt of rural Dodgeville are very pleased with what Solar Iowa County made possible for them.
“We had talked about putting in solar because the prices of solar panels have come down quite a bit. Prices are about 70% lower now than they were in 2010. There is a still a 30% federal tax credit on your purchase and 12% rebate from Focus on Energy. Then, when the Iowa County ‘group buy’ came up, they said there would be even more of a rebate. We went to a meeting to see what has happening, and it turned out we got almost half of the cost paid for by the tax credit and rebates.”
“We built our system a little bigger to accommodate an electric car a few years down the road. On a sunny day like today,” Joe said on Sunday, September 24, “the panels will produce about 35 kilowatt hours, and we use about 15, so that means we are doing really well.”
“I think a lot of people do it for the environment too,” June said. “Most of Wisconsin’s energy comes from burning coal, and solar is more environmentally friendly.”
Another rural Dodgeville ‘group buy’ participant, Bill Menke, said, “We were thrilled to install our solar array in order to do our part to reduce carbon increases, and Eagle Point Solar was outstanding to work with.”
Kate and Dwight Reimann of Arena installed solar panels both at their home and their business, Specialty Auto.
“We have been interested in solar for several years, and when I attended the Citizens Climate Lobby Iowa County chapter meeting in January, I heard there was going to be a group buy,” said Kate. “As soon as I heard there was going to be a group buy, Dwight and I were on board. It actually happened much faster than I expected.”
Solar panels for their business were easy to install, but making the process work with ground-mounted panels near their home was more complicated because their property adjoined a railroad right-of-way. To get a building permit, they had to find the abstract for their 100-year-old home and pace out the distance from the center of the railroad track. After surmounting many hurdles, the panels are now installed.
“With the software, we can monitor how much electricity we are generating on a daily basis. It’s been exciting. It feels good to know that we are helping to make a difference and not just standing by and hoping somebody else will make that difference. We hope there will be another ‘group buy’ soon. I know there’s more interest out there.”
Murphy said the group buy information meetings are a great way for people to understand if their site is good for solar energy.
“Folks come with a range of experience from learning about solar for the first time to licensed electricians, and they all ask different questions. Everyone comes away having learned a lot.”
The typical first question is whether Wisconsin has enough sun to justify solar. Murphy says the answer is yes. He also answers many questions about snow and hail. Because solar panels are dark and mounted at an angle, the sun warms up snow, and it slips off. Also solar panels in this program are rated to handle one inch hail and 250 mph winds.
“It was really impressive to see both the number of people interested in solar power and that ultimately, over 30 households decided to go solar,” said Murphy.
“This technology is becoming more normal and accepted. These programs create a multiplier effect. If you see a solar array go up in a neighborhood, that person’s neighbors are more likely to go solar. The fact that there are going to be 32 new installations around Iowa County suggests that there will be many more in the coming years.”
Solar Iowa County does not have immediate plans for another ‘group buy,’ but they hope to a coordinate another purchasing program in the future. http://www.thedodgevillechronicle.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=8&ArticleID=8368&TM=40560.35