Co-ops, companies ramp up as demand for solar increases

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Erika Riley, The Frederick News-Post, Md.
·5 min read
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Apr. 8—The first quarter of 2021 has already proven to be the busiest on record for Frederick-based solar company Sustainable Energy Systems (SES). The coronavirus pandemic and political shift has created a perfect storm for the solar industry, said Ryan Nicholson, SES's director of project development.

"It's been an interesting crawl; ultimately, though, we came out better for it," Nicholson said. "And I don't know if a lot of industries can claim that."

SES has hired 10 new employees since March 2020, and is looking to hire another 10. The company services the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and usually has about five installations happening each day throughout the region.

While the coronavirus pandemic might not seem like a natural catalyst for a renewed interest in solar, Nicholson said there are a variety of reasons people might have been more likely to turn to solar in the past year. With people at home more often, they might be more focused on home improvement projects and willing to invest more money into their homes rather than on vacations or other leisure activities.

The fear that the pandemic caused was also a reason many customers sought out solar: It's an opportunity to go off-grid.

"It's unfortunate that people were so scared; that's never ideal, but one of the responses is, 'I want to make sure my family is safe and that we have electricity,' and by putting a solar array and batteries on your home, as long as the sun continues to rise, you're going to get energy," Nicholson said.

The pandemic has also brought some challenges to the solar industry, however. Local jurisdictions' departments have been harder to reach, Nicholson said, due to offices being closed and work being performed remotely. What used to be a one-day turnaround for solar permits can now take up to eight weeks.

"Some of that is because they got so many home improvement contracts permit requests, not just solar," Nicholson said, "but also because they're working from home, and the system they have in place was just not built for that."

Solar co-ops

Solar co-ops are another option for people who want solar but aren't keen on the price. Co-ops bring together 20-30 likeminded homeowners who are interested in having solar installed on their property. Frederick County Office of Sustainability and Resources has already partnered with two solar co-ops in the past, both through Solar United Neighbors (SUN). SUN works with local municipalities to help create co-ops but takes care of all the bidding from vendors and the actual installation.

Both Frederick city and county have joined the Capital Area Co-Op, the newest co-op opportunity from SUN. The co-op includes Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, D.C. and Arlington County in Virginia.

Jenny Willoughby, sustainability manager for the city of Frederick, said she was excited to offer the co-op to city residents.

"We just want to offer the opportunity up for our residents and businesses to join in because we thought it was kind of a cool thing," Willoughby said. "And it really only usually comes around once every couple years, so we want to jump on it when it's available."

SES has won the bids for the past two Frederick-based co-ops. Nicholson said co-op bids are typically pretty competitive, but SES enjoys working with them because they provide some of the best clients.

"Those are the ones that are the most informed, most interested about what we're doing. They're also the ones that are always the most motivated," he said. "I think every client we have is motivated by one thing or another, but if you want to get the hardcore solar folks, that's where you find them."

Solar co-ops are typically only available for homeowners, which disqualifies people who rent their home or business or live in an apartment building without access to a rooftop. That's where community solar can help.

The employee-owned community solar company Maxed Out Solar — formerly frederick.energy — has signed up about 50 households and businesses for their community solar program. Founder Max Neely partners with solar providers who have large solar farms throughout the state.

"Community solar does not require you to own your home; it does not require you to modify your roof in any way. It essentially makes signing up for solar as easy as signing up for like a streaming service," Neely said. "The solar that the farm produces is not going to say, 'OK, this energy is for this person's house,' like it goes to the larger grid as a whole."

People who make the switch will technically be powering their homes with solar power and receive savings through Renewable Energy Credits, which usually saves customers about $5 to $20 a month.

"It's not gonna be a huge amount of money for each individual, but when we're talking about the entire community saving $5-$20 every single month that they otherwise would have been paying to the utility, that's one more night they can go get takeout, that's one more local small business they can support," Neely said.

Maxed Out Solar is aiming to have 100 people signed up for the program by Earth Day on April 22. To promote their campaign, they are choosing one person at random who has signed up before April 22 to receive $500.

The Capital Area Solar Co-Op will be open through the summer. Interested parties can find out more about the co-op through virtual information sessions at solarunitedneighbors.com.

"The D.C. area is one of the strongest markets for solar in the country," said Ben Delman, communications manager for SUN. "We're proud of the work we've been able to do to help out on both on the consumer education side but also making sure there are policies in place in [the region] that ensure as many folks as possible can benefit from solar energy."

Follow Erika Riley on Twitter: @ej_riley