Solar co-ops are sprouting on rooftops across West Virginia

By Peggy Mackenzie

West Virginia might not seem like a plausible candidate for solar power, but solar power co-ops are popping up around the state. In fact, the demand for rooftop solar panels is heating up all across the U.S. According to Time magazine, a record 187,000 homeowners installed solar panels in 2014.

The allure, of course, is that solar systems don’t emit pollution and don’t produce toxic waste. Even though less than 1 percent of U.S. power comes from solar, the stakes are growing as the transition from fossil fuel power to alternate power sources grow. And, as technology continues to improve, rooftop solar costs continue to drop. The average price of a 6-kilowatt system, pre-tax credit is $20,867.

That cost is reduced by 20 percent more if you join a co-op.

Co-ops have already been formed in Monroe and Fayette counties. The Fayette county organization has 36 members and the Monroe co-op has 80. Two others are starting up in Wheeling and Morgantown, and a solar co-op in Charleston just held their first meeting at West Virginia State University last month.

WV Sun is leading the transition to solar

in West Virginia, says Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, the umbrella organization for WV Sun. Since 2007, Community Power Network has launched more than 30 solar co-ops in Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, DC, and Maryland.

“We do not represent any particular installer or company, but instead seek to share neutral and accurate information about solar,” Delman said. “Our goal is to promote a vibrant, transparent, open, and fair market for solar in West Virginia.”

Delman said purchasing solar units as a co-op is a better deal for consumers. Customers typically save around 20 percent on the systems that can cost around $15,000 to install. One advantage of joining a co-op is that members can join together to make solar power system purchases and get a price break when they do. Joining a membership group can also be very effective for sharing information and learning together, as reported by cleantechnica.com.

Members of each individual co-op decide on what company they want to install the units after reviewing four to seven bids. Then they get individual solar unit proposals. From there, the co-op members sign contracts and move to the installation stage.

The Fayette County co-op used Cleveland, OH-based Appropriately Applied Technologies, while the Monroe County co-op used Sustainable Energy Systems of Frederick, MD.

None-the-less, this solar transition has not been met without some resistance in West Virginia. There’s always been push-back here because West Virginia is a power generating state. West Virginia has no renewable standards, or specified targets for solar production. In fact, the state’s policies related to this clean form of energy have been given an “F” letter grade by SolarPowerRocks.com.

West Virginia’s net metering situation has also been described as anti-solar. Net metering refers to the government’s mandated buy-back policy. Most residential solar panel systems are still connected to the grid. When their solar system generates extra power, they send their unused power back to the grid for a credit. But utilities say they lose out by having to purchase back solar power at retail rates when they would normally buy power at cheaper wholesale rates. Some utilities are pushing regulators and lawmakers to reform net-metering policies, often by adding fees or capping the number of installations.

It is logical that the West Virginia legislature is not very open to alternative energy, because West Virginia is heavily reliant on cheap coal for electricity, and so residents of the state

enjoy very low electricity prices. West Virginians pay an average of 9.38 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. That’s almost four cents less than the national average of 13.14 cents/kWh. It’s clear that West Virginians get a huge rebate, and so appear to be better off than the 13.14 cents per kilowatt-hour person.

With those electricity prices artificially low, the ability of solar energy to achieve meaningful payback in the state is obviously hindered. However, it is exactly for this reason that solar co-ops can do so much good where public policy does not support solar power.

All our cheap electricity is produced by

burning fossil fuel. As the coal industry declines and electricity prices jump, people will look for ways to get involved in, and benefit from, the future of energy. More and more West Virginians will make the early switch to producing their own clean, efficient solar power.

Down in Monroe County, for the past two months, Joseph Chesnoff has been enjoying virtually cost-free energy for his woodworking business, From The Woods. By joining the Monroe County Solar Coop, Chesnoff got a 30 percent discount on a solar panel system, which, with tax benefits and an agriculture development grant, he found the system was relatively affordable – and worth it.

“Self-sufficiency and independence, that’s a big part of my lifestyle,” Chesnoff said. “I mean, to be producing the electricity that runs my tools and making stuff without having to buy energy from somewhere, I’m thrilled with it. In a relatively short time [my costs to install the solar energy system] will be paid back by the energy I produce, and then I’m saving money from then on.”

More information about other co-ops throughout the Mountain State can be found at www.wvsun.org.

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