Trending: countywide co-op fuels residential solar power

Paul Schroeder of Old Brooklyn had always wanted a solar power system for the roof of his South Hills Drive home, but the $40,000 price tag essentially dashed those plans.

Then came the Cuyahoga County Solar Co-op, which offers residents discounted solar installs along with a sweet incentive: a 30 percent federal tax credit for 2018. Schroeder and his wife, Rosemary Palmer, gladly joined the co-op last fall and realized their renewable energy goal earlier this year with a westward-facing nest of rooftop solar panels.

"Ideally, the panels should be facing south, but we couldn't turn the house," jokes Schroeder.

<span class="content-image-text">Paul Schroeder and the solar DC-AC inverter on the side of his home in Old Brooklyn</span>Paul Schroeder and the solar DC-AC inverter on the side of his home in Old Brooklyn

Regardless, Schroeder is more than pleased with the system's early returns: Joining the co-op reduced the installation costs by half and cut his home's electricity consumption by 850 kilowatt hours (kWh) over the last month.

"From the individual level I'm reducing my carbon footprint," he says. "I'm very happy with what I've seen here so far."

Solar program shines across the nation — and on Cuyahoga County

More than 209 other Northeast Ohio property owners are interested in enjoying those same benefits, as long as their buildings are capable of accommodating a solar-powered system, says Mike Foley, director of Cuyahoga County's Department of Sustainability. Not everyone who enrolled in the co-op before the February 28 deadline will get a rooftop installation, he notes, but nearly 30 signees have already added the technology.

"We have residents who aren't ready to pull the trigger or are trying to figure out financing," says Foley. "There are lots of people supporting the concept, even if they have other expenses first."

Based on the same principle as buying in bulk, co-op members purchase solar systems together to save money and share knowledge. The group uses a competitive bidding process to select installation companies — in this case Third Sun Solar of Athens, Ohio, and YellowLite of Cleveland — that set up the systems. While each participant signs their own contract with the installer, everyone involved with the program gets the bulk discount.

"There's a cognizance now of creating renewable electricity for your home," Foley says. "This is new for the county, and it's going to be a learning curve for many people."

Cuyahoga County's co-op is organized in collaboration with the county sustainability department and partner group OH SUN (Solar United Neighborhoods), which is driving the effort locally. OH SUN is an affiliate of the national Community Power Network, which has created co-ops in several states. In Ohio, OH SUN has planned co-ops in Cuyahoga, Lorain and Delaware counties, as well as in Athens and the Worthington area near Columbus.

Qualifying co-op members work directly with installers to determine a price. Foley is putting up 14 panels — each about the size of an American flag — on the roof of his Cleveland home. The system will provide 50 percent of his household's electricity, and, along with the hefty tax credit, is financed by a county home improvement loan that carries a two percent interest rate.

Last fall, OH SUN led community information sessions that drew 600 to 700 residents, highlighting a potentially robust solar market now slowly coming to fruition.

"Early adopters like messaging back and forth with other members of the group," says Foley. "There's a thirst for understanding how this works. You can see the light bulb going off above people's heads."

"This is where we have to start"

Solar panel technology has improved in recent years, meaning east- and west-facing homes now qualify for a system that once favored only southern exposures. Schroeder's interest in solar and other alternative energies stretches back to a geothermal furnace that cut his monthly gas bill from $200 to $17. However, the furnace needed a heat pump, which raised his electricity output and renewed his curiosity about solar power.

Schroeder's biggest obstacle was finding a reputable contractor, a problem solved by the co-op. And for those who think Cleveland's cold and cloudy reputation puts a damper on going solar, the National Renewable Energy Lab, asserts that the Cleveland area averages 4 – 4.5 hours of sunlight a day, as compared to Florida's five-plus hours daily. The city also gets more sun than Germany, a well-known solar power hotbed.

"We're not Arizona or California, but we get enough sun," says Schroeder. "I have a cousin in Fremont who's got an array of panels on the ground, and he's doing fine."

The City of Cleveland is not directly involved with the co-op, but city energy manager Anand Natarajan says the enterprise aligns with the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative that includes solar power on its list of viable energy sources.

"One of our action plans is installing renewable energy in homes and businesses," says Natarajan. "The co-op's work relates directly to that objective, and brings awareness that solar can work in the region."

With co-op members signed up from Bay Village to Chagrin Falls, Foley expects another iteration of the program to come online next year. Interested residents can apply on OH SUN's website for a pre-assessment on the suitability of solar for their property. The months ahead will be a lesson on permitting and licensing, as well as teaching other municipalities best practices in bringing solar power to their populations.

"Ten years down the line we hope every new construction has solar on it," says Foley. "Right now we're doing the messaging. This is where we have to start."

Meanwhile, Schroeder is busy posting photos of his new solar installation on Facebook. He's also taking time to inform friends about the benefits of clean energy and the co-op program that made it happen.

"This technology is catching fire; there's solar co-ops all over the country," Schroeder says. "The work won't get done through the government, but through individuals banding together to make costs come down."

Further reading: First residents jump into Solarize Cleveland

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.