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Local Solar Co-ops with Bobby King and Solar United Neighbors

Solar

Scott Hall:

Solar United Neighbors is launching its 15th solar power buying co-op for Minnesota residents in a webinar next Tuesday evening, October 25th. Solar United Neighbors has already helped people build solar power buying co-ops in the Bemidji area and on the iron range. This new one will expand solar power opportunities for neighbors, businesses and community organizations in northeastern Minnesota. And Bobby King is the program director for Solar United Neighbors in Minnesota. He joins us now to tell us how solar power buying co-ops work. Welcome Bobby.

Bobby King:

Yeah, thank you Scott and Kari for having me on and opportunity to tell you a little bit about how our solar United Neighbors solar co-ops work.

Scott Hall:

Yeah, let's start right there. How do they work?

Bobby King:

Yeah, so the principle behind them is we're a community based organization and just like KAXE, we know that you can do more together when you work together. So the first principle of the solar co-op is that people join for free. They tell us about their home and give us some information about what they're looking to accomplish by solar. We do a satellite review of their property to make sure it's suitable for solar and then if that all checks out, you're a member of the co-op. And then we use the group buying power. We put out a bid, an RFP for solo installers to bid on the group's business. And we've got a RFP request for proposals that we've really honed over the years that gets members what they need to know about an installer's experience, their track record, what they offer, and their price structure.

Scott Hall:

Bobby, does this help them save money on going solar?

Bobby King:

Yeah, so that's the first principle of it. Yeah, you'll get a better price because one of the biggest costs for solar installers is securing customers. So, we're saying, "here's a group of customers that's very interested and pre-screened." And the second part of the co-op is we do solar education. So we do meetings in the community, we do webinars that cover the basics of solar technology, the basics of financing solar, the economics of solar, and then how the solar co-op works. And I should say that we [informally] call them solar co-ops: We started on the east coast where there aren't actually as many real co-ops. This is really an informal group of people coming together for this one-time purpose. So, every member of the solar co-op will get a proposal from the chosen installer, and they can choose to move forward or not move forward.

It's up to them whether or not they think that's a fair price, a good deal, and if their financial situation would still allow for it. But the other thing that we cover in the economics of solar is there are some strong incentives to go solar, and they're stronger now with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. So there's a 30% tax credit that you can get. So, if your income is high enough that you're paying in, then you can use that tax credit. We also wanted a direct-pay option for lower-income folks to be part of the bill: that didn't make it. So, we're trying to figure out ways to help folks with lower incomes have access to solar.

Kari Hedlund:

What's a direct pay?

Bobby King:

Let's say 30% of your solar array is $8,000. That's your credit. And in income taxes, you're a lower income family of three kids and the income taxes you have to pay in that year is 2000 bucks. <affirmative> You would get the other 6,000 back as cash. Whereas now it's just a credit and you don't have to use that all in one year. But if what you owe in tax isn't greater than that credit, it's not useful to you. So, it's really an incentive that's designed for middle-class and upper-middle-class families. And we haven't, as a country yet invested much and thought as deeply about how to make solar accessible to lower-income homeowners. And there's a lot of benefit potentially there. It immediately reduces your energy bill, it increases the value of your home. So there's a lot of value there for low-income people. We just have some hurdles to overcome. We do partner with the Community Land Trust in Duluth (One Roof) to help some of their low-income homeowners go solar. So we're trying to model how it can be done.

Other just one other incentive real quick is the rural energy for our America program REAP. It used to cover 25% of the cost to go on solar for rural small businesses, but with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, it now covers 50%. So small businesses, including farms, that have a good site for solar, your payback period can be very quick on solar now.

Scott Hall:

Are there any special challenges to serving rural areas?

Bobby King:

Well, yeah, getting an installer out there to look at your property. It's a long drive for just one customer sometimes, and a lot of installers are swamped. It can be challenging to get someone out to your place. So, what we do with the rural solar co-ops is the installer commits to visit and give everybody that wants it a proposal. So as long as a co-op member you're following through, you'll get a proposal tailored for your property to go solar. You'll get that. And that's at no cost to you. So for rural communities, one of the benefits of the solar co-op is you're gonna get a fairly priced bid which can be sometimes challenging for people that have looked into going solar just on their own. And a lot of people do, and that's the way that works. It can be very confusing though. There are a lot of out-of-state companies that try to present themselves as locally based. It's really confusing to tell who's who. And there's been some problems with installers going out of business or disappearing. We are lucky in Minnesota. There are many, many locally based installers that are top-notch. Just making sure you're working with one of those, if you're just starting off, can be a little tricky sometimes.

Scott Hall:

So there's some consumer protection built into your project here to be sure you get dependable or reliable installers. How does determining if a site is suitable for solar work? What would make a site not solar ready?

Bobby King:

Well for a home, you want at least 200-250 square feet of uninterrupted space on a roof that's not facing north. So south facing, of course, is the best. Panels are very efficient now, so west and east will work, but direct north facing just doesn't work. And you need to have no shade during nine to three, the peak sun production hours. So, usually what we see is someone's got a cabin in the woods by a lake and it's surrounded by trees and that that's not gonna work. A lot of times people have put up a new large barn garage- that works great- or, they've got a room for ground mount somewhere.

Kari Hedlund:

At our house in Minneapolis and one of our houses up here that we were at, we had the satellite done to see if we could get solar. And for both of them, we were just surrounded by too [many] massive trees, so that it was too much coverage for during the peak hours.

Bobby King:

Yeah, that's my home.

Scott Hall:

Are there any other tips for someone who can't join the co-op and have to go it alone? What would be some basic things?

Bobby King:

Get three bids if at all possible. And you're gonna wanna understand your price per watt. A lot of installers present their stuff as zero down, and this is how much you're paying per month. But you wanna know "Per watt, what am I paying?" <affirmative>? That gives you a better number to compare. Some installers make that clear. Others, you gotta get out a pen and paper and do the math. Now, we're happy to work with anybody that wants to go solar on their own and offer them advice. We're set up to do that. We have a solar help channel and service. We just wanna help people get to solar, however they get there. We do have a solar co-op open now in Duluth and Arrowhead. So, if you consider yourself living in the arrowhead, you can go to Solarunitedneighbors.org/duluth and sign up there for the co-op.

We also have a webinar coming up on Tuesday, and if you click on the events tab on that page, you'll see how to sign up. And anyone's welcome to attend those webinars. I'd say if you're thinking about solar, that's an hour of information that'll be very valuable to you. Over the years, we've honed how to explain how solar works, what you need to know, and what you could learn later to make a good decision. So anyone's welcome to attend that. And we have for the last two years done an Iron Range Solar Co-op. We just closed one out, and we may be starting another one this winter. Really we work with partner organizations and just their ability and willingness to help promote it in the community is what determines whether or not we do another round. We also have a wait list, so you can go to our website and get on a wait list for the solar co-op. If you do that, we'll give you a roof review so you'll kind of know rough and ready is you got a great roof of probably will work or likely won't work, roof or property. And we take a look at that wait list and if we get a lot of people on the wait list from a certain community, we'll really try to get a solar coop going there.

Kari Hedlund:

Think of "community garden" idea, where you have one area for people who don't have space for gardens to be able to have their own garden. Would that ever work in a solar capacity, like a community solar?

Bobby King:

Yeah. So within Xcel territory there is a community solar and there's a wonderful organization called Cooperative Energy Futures, and they set up solar gardens as legal cooperative. So you buy in, and you're an owner/member, and then you get your electricity from that garden. It's credited against your bill. There are also many for-profit companies that do community solar. I get community solar, but that's not available outside of Xcel territory.

Scott Hall:

Minnesota Power worked with the city of Grand Rapids last year to build a solar garden south of town out by the airport. And that was a pretty unique circumstance, but I think that everybody who lives in Grand Rapids will get some savings from that. They have this huge battery too to store [energy]. It's pretty amazing. Say, where a co-op already exists, and somebody's not in it, can they join one that already exists?

Bobby King:

Yeah. Oh yeah. It's a date on the webpage where when membership closes, but it's open for membership through the winter. So, we'll have an installer selected for that solar co-op, sometimes early January. So, the idea is to get people proposals over the winter for spring and summer builds. So yeah, the Twin Cities Area Solar Co-op is now open for membership and the Duluth and Arrowhead Solar Co-ops are open for membership

Scott Hall:

If you join one that already exists, is an installer have the same incentive?

Bobby King:

Well, for neither of those [co-ops] has an installer been selected yet. We're still in the procuring membership stage, and then we'll build up a fair number of members. We've done 'em in the past: we know we will. Then, we'll put out a notice to installers saying, "Hey, for Duluth and Arrowhead, we're gonna get 150 members. We've got 80 now. Would you like the bid?"

Scott Hall:

The webinar is next Tuesday night at 6:30. People can register at your websites: Solarunitedneighbors.org. I think you said if people who say live in the Brainerd area are interested, they could still join your webinar Tuesday, couldn't they?

Bobby King:

Yeah, please do. If you're interested in solar, it really will let you know the basics of what you need to know.

Scott Hall:

Yeah. All right, Bobby, thanks for joining us.

Bobby King:

One last point. If you go to our website, go to Solarunitedneighbors.org/duluth to get to that co-op webpage. Hit the events tab to find the webinar. There's a lot of stuff on the webpage.

Kari Hedlund:

Bobby King, program director for Solar United Neighbors. Thanks so much, Bobby.

Bobby King:

Thank you.

Kari (CAR-ee) is originally from South Dakota … a state often referred to as the land of infinite variety. As Music Director at Northern Community Radio, Kari has taken that theme to heart with her ability to feed a community of listeners hungry for an infinite variety of music and ideas. Along with her trademark lipstick and husky voice … Kari also raises a family … and Baguettes when time permits
KAXE/KBXE Senior Correspondent
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).