Op-ed: Finding a better way to go solar in the East Bay

I’ve been thinking about “going solar” for a few years. I even got quotes from two different companies to put panels on my roof, but never felt ready to pull the trigger. I hadn’t been able to decide if I should buy the system outright, finance it, or sign a PPA agreement. It all felt a bit complicated — even overwhelming, especially as the two companies I had bids from suggested significantly different sized systems. No wonder going solar tends to languish somewhere towards the bottom of our to-do lists.

Then, I got a flyer on my front porch about the East Bay Community Solar Project, a one-time, limited-time, non-profit project spearheaded by a neighbor of mine. The plan was to do what has been done successfully in many other communities around the country where an organizer, sometimes an individual and sometimes an organization, or even the city or state, gets competitive bids from several solar providers to offer a volume discount based on the number of residences (or businesses) that participate in the buying program. To help participants feel comfortable delegating the selection of a contractor to the project, the coordinator recruits a handful of potential participants to review bids and select the contractor on behalf of the group.

In the case of this project, the committee members’ contact info — and I am one of them — is on the website so you can ask about the selection process.

Over the past five years, community solar projects have popped up all over the U.S.  Their aim is to encourage rooftop solar by helping homeowners and businesses get the best rate possible and by simplifying and demystifying the process. The cost of solar has come down over the past several years, but the number of providers has increased and, ironically, more choice can make it harder to make a decision (I should know!).

Some of the most successful community solar projects in the U.S. so far (called Solarize in much of the rest of the country, but here in Northern California we cannot call our project this because a Southern California group decided to trademark the name so nobody else in California can use it – thanks SoCal!) have been in Portland, OR, where 560 households participated over the course of six campaigns, and Amherst, MA, where 174 did in a single cycle.

While many Solarize programs operate on a rolling basis, doing a campaign or two a year, the Bay Area hasn’t had a large Solarize project in years, since One Block Off the Grid (originally based on the Solarize model) grew into the Travelocity of solar — though there have been some with much more limited geographic reach. The East Bay Community Solar Project (EBCSP) is the first of its scale to target the East Bay in particular.

When I first heard about the EBCSP, the model intrigued me. First, I liked the idea of lower prices. In my case, the savings will be between $4,000 and $5,000 on top of the standard savings from going solar, about a 25% discount.  But, equally, I was hopeful that by volunteering to be on the contractor selection committee, I would understand the details well enough that I could be sure to choose the best approach and get the best deal. I have an MBA and a PhD in business and I don’t like making financial commitments without being sure I understand the numbers!

I agreed to serve on the committee and got to see first-hand all the considerations that can go into making a careful, and responsible decision. As a member of the selection committee, I participated in the roughly 3-month process of deciding on criteria for evaluation, reviewing the five bids we received, selecting and interviewing finalists, and finally choosing the company we felt offered the best balance of price, quality, and social responsibility. The experience allowed me to fully appreciate just how much trouble these projects can save the people who participate.

If you are one of the many folks who would like to go solar, but have been deterred by the complexity and hassle of the process, I encourage you to take advantage of the community support this project offers. Between the bargaining leverage, due diligence and expertise the project provides, participating is easily a better way to go solar than doing so individually. You can visit the website, have a look around, and sign up for a proposal at ebcsolarproject.com.

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April Gilbert is a consultant to nonprofit organizations and has lived in Berkeley for 40 years.