More people in the United States are installing solar panels in their homes for electric power. The cost can be expensive, so some neighborhoods have formed community groups to help homeowners save money. The first community to do that in the Washington area was the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, where 75 households have joined the Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative.
Mount Pleasant is a historic area in Washington and solar panels are not allowed to be visible from the street. The Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative is part of a trend across the United States to encourage homeowners to use solar energy instead of fossil fuels that may harm the environment. Robert Robinson, a member of the cooperative, says it helped that many of his neighbors think solar energy is an important resource.
“Many people live here who have worked in developing countries all over the world, and so going back to the 1970s, they’ve had experiences with Air Force bases that are solarized or schools or hospitals," said Robinson.
The cooperative began in 2006 with two neighbors, who looked into putting solar panels on the roofs of their homes. They discovered a complex and expensive process and asked others in their neighborhood to join them. Anya Schoolman, one of the group's founders, says Washington gets adequate sunshine year round to make solar energy worthwhile.
“We have good long summer days so we do well here," said Schoolman.
The cooperative worked to get group discounts from solar panel installers and helped each other to understand government programs that rebate some of the cost of solar panel installation. Panels can cost from $15,000 to $30,000 depending on the size of the system. Schoolman says rebate incentives made the panels more affordable by cutting the cost by at least half.
“There is a 30 percent federal tax credit for going solar for residential," she said. "And that makes a huge difference in the cost and then there’s a number of state level incentives.”
Despite the initial cost, the savings are big in the long run. Schoolman says the homeowners’ electrical bills have gone down as much as two-thirds. On top of that, the local electric company grants homeowners credit when their solar system generates more energy than they use.
Cooperative member Erik Hoffland is an architect who recently installed solar power in his home. He figures he will pay off his investment within three to five years.
“To be able to talk to people as an architect and tell them that I put this into my house, hopefully, it will give them a better sense that it might be the right thing for them to do as well," said Hoffland.
The cooperative has also helped push through solar-friendly energy legislation in the local Washington government. Anya Schoolman recently began the Community Powered Network to help other communities with their solar energy programs.