Group touts 'solar co-ops'

Published July 15, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Saying they face a "David and Goliath" fight against Florida's utility giants in trying to bring rooftop solar energy collection to the Sunshine State, the League of Women Voters on Thursday announced the creation of a new organization that will form "solar co-ops" around the state to obtain bulk discounts for community-based solar installations.

The group, FL SUN, is a nonprofit established to solicit competitive bids from local installers and provide individualized proposals for groups of homeowners that reflect the group discounts.

The first two projects are in St. Petersburg and Orlando, using a model begun a decade ago by Community Power Network, a national nonprofit that helps promote local renewable energy projects and policies, in Washington, D.C., Maryland and is now also active in West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio. FL SUN, which is financed by public and private grants, also has plans to quickly expand to Brevard, Volusia, Alachua and Sarasota counties and hopes to operate in more parts of the state.

"The league's role is going to be one we're very comfortable and familiar with — that's education," said Deirdre Macnab, chair of the League's Natural Resources/Solar Action Group and a member of the 80-member Orlando co-op. "We are going to be helping citizens understand how they can save money and better conserve energy in their houses by putting on forums."

Under the program, co-op members work together to obtain a competitive bid from a rooftop solar contractor and together they obtain a discount of up to 20 percent.

Each participant signs his or her own contract with the installer, but everyone gets the bulk discount and the advantage of navigating the process together. The installer, who normally spends up to 30 percent of his costs on finding customers, pays the co-op a referral fee of $500 per customer and both sides save money, said Angela DeMonbreun, FL SUN's state director.

There is no cost to join the co-op but members will be allowed to vote on the final vendor from among the bidders, she said.

The Orlando co-op, known as the Central Florida Solar Advocates, was the first to bring the concept to Florida, after having learned about the success of the Maryland-based program from a story on National Public Radio.

The group received bids from 45 companies and ultimately hired Tampa-based Solar Energy Management to offer the service.

Although Florida has the third largest number of residential electricity customers in the nation, expansion of rooftop solar has moved slowly as utility regulators have reduced energy efficiency programs and the Florida Legislature has ended solar rebates. Today, only about 11,626 of the 7.9 million utility customers in Florida have rooftop solar installed — less than 1 percent — according to the Florida Public Service Commission.

In an attempt to "expand the solar community" by promoting changes in state and local policies, FL SUN will to do more than just help people navigate the often-complicated process of installing solar, DeMonbreun said.

"Ballot initiatives could greatly impact the ability to go solar," she said. To that end, the group will also be working to educate voters to vote "yes" on Amendment 4, the solar proposal on the Aug. 30 primary ballot that will give small businesses and commercial buildings a tax break on equipment if they install solar.

The group is also urging voters to vote "no" on the utility-backed Amendment 1 proposal on the November ballot, which would install into the state Constitution existing law and expand on the disputed claim that solar customers are subsidized by non-solar customers.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas, Tallahassee bureau chief, at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.