Group buying initiatives make it easier (and cheaper) to buy solar

One Block Off the Grid goes national with group solar purchase campaign; Solar@Work makes it simpler for San Francisco small businesses to invest in solar.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Undeterred by the shifting climate in government funding support for renewable energy projects, two noteworthy initiatives have been launched in the past week seeking to bring solar power to a broader range of consumers and businesses.

The first initiative, driven by San Francisco-based One Block Off the Grid, seeks to extend the benefits of group solar purchases to 23 additional states (beyond its existing presence in 10 states). The second effort, called Solar@Work and driven by SolarCity and the World Resources Institute, seeks to make it easier for small businesses in San Franciso to invest in solar power.

The nationwide consumer-focused effort is called One Nation Off the Grid. It required One Block Off the Grid to negotiate with more than 100 installers and solar technology organizations across the United States.

When I spoke with One Block Off the Grid CEO and Founder Dave Llorens about the three-month-long effort, he said it is intended to help raise awareness about the potential of solar technologies not only to help consumers save money on their long-term electricity costs but to help create local jobs.

He said:

"For us, this campaign isn't about selling solar. It's about moving the U.S. economy forward. There is now crystal clear evidence that state solar incentives are the single greatest factor in whether or a solar market can take off in that state, yet 37 out of 50 states still don't have even basic versions of these policies in place. We got tired of waiting around for politicians to do something, so now we're asking the American people to put some pressure on their state leaders."

According to a One Block Off the Grid study called “Solar Saves America,” 10 states in particular are ripe for solar incentives, because they could help create up to 105,000 new jobs over the next five years. Those states are:

  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Missouri
  • Tennessee
  • South Carolina
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Kentucky
  • Virginia

Here’s how the campaign works: One Block Off the Grid has created an online tool that lets homeowners calculate how much it would cost to install solar technology under their state’s current policy versus how much it would cost if their were incentives in place. It encourages people to send a note to their local politicians (contact information provided, of course) urging strong support for renewable energy technologies.

If enough people in a given county or state sign up for the next step, a solar assessment, the relationships that One Block Off the Grid has negotiated will go live. The organization will connect interested homeowners with local installers in order to help encourage the development of smaller, local solar integration and installation businesses. The video below describes how the group discounts work:

During the three-month-long campaign, One Block Off the Grid is forgoing its usual referral fee, donating $500 instead to Kiva City. That’s the new U.S. arm of the Kiva.org microloan association, which supports entrepreneurial activities in U.S. cities. The money will specifically benefit the Strong America Today Fund. One Block Off the Grid will provide a $500 rebate to homeowners that choose to invest in a solar installation.

To date, One Block Off the Grid has run more than 50 group purchasing campaigns in 10 states.

The small-business solar-buying program, Solar@Work, is much more finite in focus. Still, it represents a breakthrough for smaller companies interested in investing in solar technologies. It works much the same way as the group plans run by One Block Off the Grid in that it aggregates interested buyers in order to help them buy solar technologies at a discounted rate.

The model was developed by the City and County of San Francisco's Department of the Environment (aka SF Environment) along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Optony. The idea is to get companies together to purchase at least two megawatts of solar capacity; the group will get more discounts if it can find enough collective interest in three megawatts of capacity.

The group, led by stakeholder World Resources Institute, tapped national solar integrator Solar City as the approved vendor for the project. The aggregation approach is backed with funding and support that SF Environment won from both the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar America Cities program and from the SunShot Initiative. It will offer four different financing options to participating businesses: cash deals, leasing, capital loans and other options, such as power purchase agreements.

Said Alex Perera, director of business engagement in climate and technology for the World Resources Institute, said:

"Solar@Work is a major milestone in bring down the cost of solar power for previously underserved small- and mid-sized businesses by leveraging companies' combined buying power. WRI has piloted collaborative group solar purchasing and found that this model can significant lower costs and minimize time spent navigating the complex process, which is why it was an ideal solution for San Francisco."

Here are some of the criteria that San Francisco businesses must meet to qualify for participation:

  • Must be an owner-occupied commercial building or long-term lease
  • Maximum of three stories with average electrical load
  • Available roof or parking lot space to accommodate panels (5,000 square feet)
  • The business shouldn't have any major renovation or repair plans for the installation space over the next 15 years.

Applications will be accepted until Oct. 14, 2011; ground on these projects is expected to be broken by the end of 2011.

I believe it will take innovative efforts like these program to build awareness and accessibility for renewable energy technologies for consumers and small businesses. I'll be checking back for efforts on both these efforts before the end of the year.

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(Photo courtesy of Creative Commons; taken by "Living Off Grid")

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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