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Program helps streamline the solar-buying process for Tucsonans
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Program helps streamline the solar-buying process for Tucsonans

Harry McGregor had a 50-panel solar photovoltaic system installed early this year through the Solar United Neighbors Tucson cooperative. In addition to the home, the system also helps charge the family's two Tesla electric vehicles.

If you’ve ever considered installing a rooftop solar system, the process and a lack of expertise can make the experience feel daunting.

But an effort that kicked off in Tucson last year and is looking to expand in the area is bringing together community members to support one another in the process and tap into the concept of group buying power.

The Tucson Solar Co-op organized by Solar United Neighbors last year signed up 168 members, 61 of whom bought and installed rooftop photovoltaic systems under a group pricing contract after a bidding and review process.

The group is now trying to sign up at least 75 members for a second Tucson cooperative and plans to use money from a donor to subsidize a few systems for lower-income families, said Bret Fanshaw, Arizona program director for United Solar Neighbors, or SUN.

Solar United Neighbors started with a neighborhood solar co-op organized in 2007 by two teenage boys in Washington, D.C., who became concerned about climate change.

The nonprofit has since hosted co-ops in 12 states and Washington, including eight in Arizona.

The co-ops can use their buying power to get good deals on high-quality photovoltaic systems, but the group’s larger mission is to help homeowners who may be daunted by the technical and financial details of going solar.

“We find that it helps to build confidence when people go solar in a group, because they are getting unbiased information from us about how solar works and how to work with contractors,” Fanshaw said.

There’s no fee to join a SUN co-op and no obligation to buy anything at the end of the process, Fanshaw said.

Members learn about the intricacies of installing solar including how photovoltaic systems work and financing options through information sessions and webinars.

When a co-op signs up enough members, SUN puts out a request for bids for local solar contractors and vets the contractors for proper licensing, past work references and quality of their equipment and warranty offerings.

Then a committee made up of co-op members choose a single installer who installs all of the participating members’ systems at a group rate.

While that assures members are getting a fair price, the lowest bid doesn’t always win, with things like reputation and service after the sale also factoring in, Fanshaw said.

“I think that’s why some of the selection committees tend to choose bids that are from established companies, that people know can service the warranty,” he said.

The first SUN Tucson Solar Co-op attracted five bids and was won by Tucson-based Technicians for Sustainability, which was founded in 2003.

While there is no co-op membership fee, the contractors pay a fee of $600 per system to SUN, which they are encouraged to factor into their bid pricing, Fanshaw said.

Contractors bid for the work based on a price per watt of installed solar system capacity.

According to an example from SUN, at an average price of about $2.75 per watt in Arizona, a 6.8-kilowatt system that can meet most of the power needs of a typical household would cost $18,700.

With a 26% federal tax credit and $1,000 state tax credit, the system cost drops to about $12,800, with estimated annual savings of more than $1,000 in electric bills.

Fanshaw said individual co-op members choose the size of the systems and any add-ons, noting that smaller systems can be priced somewhat higher.

Big picture view

East-side resident Harry McGregor said he looked into joining the Tucson Solar Co-op as he was renovating the house he grew up in near East 22nd Street and South Kolb Road, where he moved with his wife Heather and four children in 2019 to take care of his mother.

McGregor, a senior technical staff member at IBM in Tucson, was no solar rookie after installing a photovoltaic system on his previous home, but he learned a thing or two and helped the group pick a contractor as a member of the co-op’s selection committee.

“The co-op is a way of getting buying power and getting an education about solar,” said McGregor, who installed a larger system through his co-op purchase to charge his family’s two Tesla electric cars. “Solar Neighbors United does a very good job of making sure all the members know what kind of commitment they’re getting into when purchasing solar.”

“I felt it was a great deal, and it was very transparent with the committee selection process,” McGregor said, noting that even members who didn’t end up buying systems — including his sister — learned a lot about solar in the process.

McGregor said all five bids the first co-op received were competitive pricewise.

But factors such as component quality and even the contractors treatment and use of employees also played a part in the selection process, he said, noting that some members wanted assurances that their work wouldn’t be subcontracted out to another company.

That won’t happen with Technicians for Sustainability, which became an employee-owned company in 2017, founder and owner Kevin Koch said.

Koch said choosing the right company is a chief concern of homeowners looking to install solar, and the co-op committee vetting process helps allay those concerns.

“People are typically alone in that decision, so going through Solar Neighbors United makes sure that people are able to get a bigger-picture view of solar and who they’re working with,” he said, adding the company plans to bid on the second Tucson solar co-op contract, if invited.

The 61 members of the first Tucson co-op installed a total of 435 kW of solar, investing $1.2 million in their systems, SUN said.

McGregor said environmental concerns were a major reason his family went solar, and SUN encourages its members to actively advocate for solar energy.

To get its message out, SUN partners with environmental groups, in Arizona including Sustainable Tucson, the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

According to SUN’s estimates, the 237 homes and businesses that installed solar as part of the eight Arizona co-ops spent $5.2 million locally to install added 1.7 megawatts solar power, offsetting more than 70.1 million pounds of carbon over 25 years.

SUN is host free online information sessions to educate community members about solar energy and the co-op, with upcoming sessions planned for Nov. 9 and Dec. 7.

For more information, go to tucne.ws/tucsonsolarcoop.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 520-573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz


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