12-Year-Old Starts Solar Solution: Neighborhood Rooftop Solar Co-ops Driving Expansion State by State


Laurie Wack
First Florida Solar Congress: Volunteers gather from all across Florida at Valencia College in Orlando to celebrate first year of multiple co-ops.

As a speaker on solar energy speaking to community groups around Florida and Colorado, I like to wake my audience up with a couple of questions. “How many of you in the audience have thought about going solar?” All hands go up.

Follow up question: “How many of you have actually gone solar?” With few exceptions, rarely do any hands raise. Consumers today are fascinated by solar, but the obstacles of price, lack of information, and oftentimes a lack of neighbors who have solar loom large.

This is where the solution of neighborhood solar co-ops comes in. Giving consumers the confidence, knowledge, and buying power to finally go solar and get a more vigorous return from the lower prices that come from bundled buying power.

After three years of a partnership between the non-profit Solar United Neighbors based in Washington DC, and the League of Women Voters of Florida, of which I was a former president, Florida has seen a major boost in distributed solar with a 110% growth in 2017. In the past three years of operation $25 million in rooftop solar installations have been spent through 45 separate cooperatives that have formed across the state.

The idea for Solar United Neighbors (SUN) started with a 12-year-old-boy, Walter, who came home from seeing the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and told his mother: “Mom, we’ve got to go solar.” With persistence, his mother, Solar United Neighbors founder Anya Schoolman, looked into going solar. She soon realized how expensive and complicated the process would be. Walter persisted and she challenged him to see if he could get the neighborhood interested to help reduce the price. So he did.

With his friend Diego, they distributed flyers all across their Washington DC neighborhood, and 100 people turned out, with most of them going solar. Other neighborhoods heard the news and approached Schoolman to do the same approach in their area. And thus, Solar United Neighbors was formed.

That group helped 50 neighbors go solar. Word of the effort quickly spread across the city and soon other neighborhood groups formed.

In 2015, the organization formed a key partnership in Florida the state’s large and active League of Women Voters organization. With 31 chapters and an army of advocates, the League has been a ground force along with a legion of volunteers from the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and many other groups to invite homeowners to neighborhood meetings to learn how solar can save them money, protect them from hurricane outages, and reduce their cost of installation by banding together.

Now in 13 states, with the newest being Colorado, participants join as volunteer solar advocates to help spread the word in their communities, encouraging their friends and neighbors to attend Solar Information Sessions and sign up to get a solar quote.

The solar co-op is free to join, and joining is not a commitment to purchase panels. For those who do decide to go forward after getting a quote, a small fee helps sustain the SUN organization in order that they may continue to facilitate more co ops and play the important role as a installer neutral group, to facilitate the installer selection committee meeting, where participants gather together and select their installer of choice.

The results have been remarkable. More than 3,600 homes have gone solar through this effort. This has generated more than $70 million in spending rooftop solar, while educating tens of thousands about the benefits of distributed solar. Rooftop solar benefits solar and non-solar owners alike because it reduces demand on the electric grid and the need for expensive new power plants.

I’ve seen this first-hand in Florida. In three years, staffing has grown to four, with two positions funded full time by grants from Miami Dade County and the City of St. Pete. Many other counties and cities are paying small amounts to fund co-ops in their areas. More than 1,200 homes have gone solar through the program.

Benefits to the community include new jobs (solar is now one of the fastest growing new employment sectors, outpacing the average growth rate), keeping savings from utility bills in the community and state, and a more resilient grid in the event of extreme weather events, which almost every state is now facing, not just Florida. Many of Florida’s cities have now made commitments to procuring 100% of their energy from renewable by a set date in the future, and the co ops have become a critical tool in their tool kit for making measureable progress toward their goal.

Support of solar transcends party lines, and even a state like Florida, which can be so politically divisive, has seen collaboration across party lines in both the state legislature, as well as local municipal and county efforts.

Solar energy is booming in Florida. NREL forecasts Florida’s solar production could constitute more than 30% of the energy used in the state within the next decade. Much of this additional capacity will come from utility-scale solar, but consumer adoption in Florida is growing as well. Last year it hit triple digit growth. This is thanks in large part to the launch of neighborhood solar co-ops across the state.

This has created 330 new jobs and more than $25 million invested into Florida’s local economy. Counties and cities (Miami-Dade County and City of St. Petersburg) have funded full time positions to offer local homeowners continuous co-op opportunities.

The program has also spawned a network of thousands of solar advocates who have encouraged their local city and county commissions to support solar and now are beginning to encourage a wider push to clean energy and the adoption of electric vehicles.

“Working with the co-op it was easy to go solar,” said solar co-op participant Charlie Behrens. Behrens had gone solar on his own at a home where he lived previously. “I had to do all of the legwork myself; vetting the installers, researching different hardware, endless financial permutations and lots of cold feet second-guessing. This time we had a good clear decision within a day, and at a lower price than we could ever get as just one rooftop.”

By joining the co-op, participants gain access to a wide array of benefits when compared with traditional methods of procuring solar power. Solar participants get a good deal on a quality installation as well as installer-neutral assistance from Solar United Neighbors.

“They have helped us remove the cost associated with marketing, business development, and customer acquisition,” said Darren Goldin of Goldin Solar, an installer that has worked with solar co-ops. He explained that the co-op organizers help installers by finding customers, educating them, and building their trust in the solar process.

“Closing these deals is much smoother, and the customers benefit from a much lower solar price,” Goldin said. “We get to focus on our expertise: engineering and construction. It’s a win-win!”