CHESTERTOWN — Two informational meetings to recruit local homeowners and businesses to join a solar power cooperative drew about 80 residents over the weekend. The sessions, conducted by representatives of Maryland Solar United Neighborhoods, are the first step in getting low-cost solar power for interested residents.
Corey Ramsden and Grant Klein of MD SUN led the meetings Friday, May 29 at Washington College and Saturday, May 30 at Chestertown town hall. They said they also ran a meeting in Tolchester, and were looking to set one up in Rock Hall. The co-op would be open to residents of Kent and northern Queen Anne’s counties.
At the beginning of the town hall meeting, Chestertown Councilwoman Liz Gross said the MD SUN presenters came to the council for its endorsement in setting up the cooperative. “I was nervous at first,” Gross said, so she asked Town Manager Bill Ingersoll to check out other communities that set up cooperatives with the nonprofit. She said the feedback was “overwhelmingly positive,” so she felt confident in giving the project the council’s support.
The purpose of the meetings, Ramsden said, was to give residents an overview of what a co-op could accomplish for them. The presentation covered the technology of home solar power systems, the process of forming a co-op and the economic benefits of going solar.
Ramdsen said MD SUN has set up some 500 homes and businesses with solar through 27 local cooperatives. The group began in a neighborhood in Washington D.C., where 48 homes ended up going solar. He said adding solar power has become easier over time, with more suppliers and installers available than ever before.
Basically, Ramdsen said, going solar involves installing panels on the roof. MD SUN checks the homes via Google Maps to make sure they have sufficient solar exposure to make an installation worthwhile.
Residents need permits for the installation, as with all roof work. Also, the installation needs to be able to handle wind and snow loads typical of the area. Residents with older roofs should have them checked for structural integrity before having anything installed, Ramsden said. Residents of historic districts will also have to check rules on installations. Ground-based installations are possible for those whose roofs don’t qualify.
The roof units are set on aluminum rails attached to the rafters, Ramsden said. Wiring runs underneath the solar panels to the house’s electric panel, where the DC power generated by the solar units is converted to AC power household appliances can use.
Solar panels generate energy for use during sunlight hours; at night, the panels are dormant, and the house draws its power from the grid, Ramsden said. However, most users’ power draw will be much lower during dark hours.
Any unused energy is sent to the grid, and credited to the user’s account by their electrical power supplier. Under net metering, which Maryland power companies are required to apply, the surplus power is applied to the user’s account before billing.
Typical home solar configurations run from 3 to 10 or 12 kilowatts in power. A 3-kW system takes up 120 to 180 square feet of roof surface. Available roof space, the amount of power usage and the budget are factors in what size system the user chooses.
As a rule, solar panels last 20 or 25 years, Ramsden said. They usually have about a 10-year warrantee, and the installation is also guaranteed for 10 years, depending on the contractor. Those factors would be among the issues the co-op considers, he said.
Klein took over to give the basics of setting up a co-op. He said by offering a contractor the chance to get a number of installations in a short period, a co-op can get its members significant savings off the normal price.
When the co-op has 20 to 30 members — typically about a month after signup begins — MD SUN issues a request for proposals from local contractors. Issues members say are important to them, such as whether to require American-made components, are used to set the specifications for the RFP. Usually, Klein said, six to eight contractors will bid.
Once bids are in, the co-op then forms a committee to choose a contractor to complete all the projects. Each customer gets an individual proposal, reflecting the terms negotiated for the group as a whole. At that point the customer can decide whether to go ahead with the installation.
Ramsden gave an overview of prices, based on deals other co-ops have negotiated. Cost of a typical system before any incentives is about $3.50 a watt. Co-ops can usually reduce that by 10 to 20 percent, and Maryland Solar Renewable Energy Credits cut the price by another $400 per killowatt.
Additional reductions include a 30 percent federal tax credit and a $1,000 Maryland Residential Clean Energy grant. So the co-op member is looking at a startup cost roughly 40 percent less than the nominal price of a system. Also, bridge loans and other financing options are often available to cover startup costs, Ramsden said. MD SUN can advise members on the different incentives and help them apply for them.
The actual savings on electric bills will vary according to the system and the rates in effect at the time. A flyer from MD SUN estimated annual savings of $465 for a 3-kW system — a figure that will increase as rates increase. Ramsden said most customers will see the system paying for itself within seven to 10 years.
Klein said system installations are typically complete within four to six months after the first meetings. Seven local residents have already joined the co-op, he said. The co-op will accept new members for about a month after the RFP goes out.