Frederick County has exceeded a goal for interest in its new solar co-op and is setting the bar higher.
The county was looking for interest from 20 to 30 residents before soliciting bids and has already reached that threshold, said Lisa Orr, a coordinator for the county’s Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources.
Now, the goal is to try to get solar panels on more than 66 buildings, Orr said.
The co-op allows homeowners, small businesses and organizations to collectively accept bids from solar companies while still giving each customer an individualized system.
The county has no limit on spots in its new solar co-op, Orr said.
The county used a Climate Showcase Communities Program grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2011 to 2014 to fund its Green Homes Challenge, including a program that put solar panels on 66 homes, she said.
“Since then, we’ve always been interested in doing it again, but didn’t have the means,” Orr said.
Maryland Solar United Neighborhoods, known as MD SUN, seemed to be the solution.
Orr kept tabs on MD SUN funding. Frederick County didn’t qualify until the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments gave MD SUN some of its excess money to offer a community-based renewable energy project in the county, she said.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is a nonprofit that represents local governments in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
After it adopted a regional climate and energy action plan in 2008, the council was recognized in the first cohort of Climate Action Champions by the U.S. Department of Energy and the White House, said Jeffrey King, the chief of energy and climate programs in the council’s Department of Environmental Programs.
At the end of fiscal 2016, the council had money left that could be used for community solar projects. King said he put out an open call to its partner governments.
Orr responded that Frederick County could use the money, which was given to council partner Community Power Network, which runs MD SUN, King said.
As of Monday, MD SUN had received 48 proposals to put solar panels on properties through the co-op. Thirty-one of those parties had returned to the organization’s website to complete the online form, said Corey Ramsden, the program director and head of Frederick County’s co-op.
Nineteen households are qualified and eight more are potentially qualified to put solar panels on their residences, Orr said.
Anya Schoolman, the founder and executive director of the Community Power Network, was among the first people to start the solar co-op system, as neighbors educated themselves about solar power and the installation of solar panels, Ramsden said.
This grew to include entire municipalities and counties, Orr said.
To date, 21 solar co-ops in Maryland produce 2.4 megawatts of energy, Ramsden said.
Unlike a Solarize initiative for a collective purchasing agreement, the number of people who sign on to the co-op does not affect the price of the panels, Orr said. Instead, buyers collectively select one bulk buying bid, which should have a competitive price because of the known amount of work the contractor will get.
The most expensive part for solar contractors is locating customers, Ramsden said.
A co-op also saves homeowners the headache of making the choice alone.
The Montgomery County co-op had the largest number of signed contracts, Ramsden said. Two hundred and forty-four members expressed interest and 88 signed contracts.
Typically, he said, 25 percent to 30 percent of interested people signing a contract with the group.
“[Frederick County] certainly seems comparable,” he said.
Orr knows how complicated putting solar panels on a home can be. She and her husband considered them for her home in 2010.
After receiving multiple quotes, she became overwhelmed on whether to buy or lease panels, the type of converters to install and if the roof could handle the weight of the panels.
“It was too much to think about, so we didn’t do anything,” she said.
In March 2012, Orr put leased panels on her roof.
In a co-op, a selection committee looks at bids and tries makes the best decision for the group, Orr said.
MD SUN anticipates sending out its request for bid proposals between Nov. 4 and 11, Ramsden said. The selection committee is expected to select the bid around Dec. 5.
The county and MD SUN will not be involved in the bid selection process. Instead, the selection committee of people with the co-op will make the choice and the whole group can sign an individualized contract with the selected company within 30 days of the personalized quote.
MD SUN plans to close new co-op sign-ups by the end of February, but that is flexible, Ramsden said.
Maryland has several tax benefits for going solar. A federal tax credit covers 30 percent of the installed cost and a $1,000 grant from Maryland Energy Administration, Ramsden said.
MD SUN will go over all financial information at a series of meetings. The first will be 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 26 in the Commmunity Room at C. Burr Artz Public Library.