What's a solar co-op and why are your neighbors are joining?

Apr. 29—The price of solar panels has decreased significantly over the last decade, making home installations within reach of many homeowners. A non-profit group is relaunching a solar co-op which leverages members into a buying unit which could qualify for an even better price.

Solar United Neighbors is bringing back the Boone County Solar Co-op for homeowners and small businesses in the county for the second time. In 2020, 69 Boone County homeowners joined the co-op of which 10 signed contracts with a preferred provider picked by co-op members.

Zach Schalk, the Indiana coordinator, said the group educates homeowners about the benefits of solar, but is not an installer.

"We facilitate these solar co-ops, which really are opportunities for neighbors in Zionsville, Lebanon, Whitestown and elsewhere in Boone County to come together, learn about solar, benefit from our vendor-neutral technical support and guidance," he said. "We facilitate a competitive bidding process where we issue requests for proposals from area solar installers."

A board of members is formed to compare the proposals and a company is chosen, typically, Schalk said, with a 10% to 15% discount. Each homeowner gets a custom proposal at the group rate. They are not obligated to purchase.

"The co-op members themselves choose to go with a single company they want to work with," Schalk said. "The co-op is completely free, there's no commitment to go solar."

One of the benefits to solar energy is sending unused electricity back to the grid. These homeowners get a credit on their electric bills. It's called net metering. Schalk said this is the last year to get credits at the full retail rate.

"In 2017, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law ... that established a timeline for ending that metering," he said. "Net metering will basically no longer be available starting June 30 of next year."

Schalk said Duke Energy has a proposal pending before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to end the practice even sooner. To be clear, it's only the rate that will change.

"If you want to make sure you can get net metering ... and make sure you're best positioned to get a good return on your investment in solar, you want to make sure you install your solar this year," he added. "That guarantees you can get that net metering through at least 2032."

Net metering credits are typically built up in the summer to be used in the winter when the panels won't be producing as much.

Part of the Town of Zionsville's Climate Action Plan includes adopting wiser practices and technology to reduce overall energy use, including promoting enrollment in solar co-ops.

"We are excited to partner with Solar United Neighbors for a second year to empower residents to move forward with clean, renewable energy," Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron said in a press release. "With the Town's Climate Action Plan, we're setting ambitious goals and taking steps toward changes that will protect our town. One of those steps is to promote access to clean energy and energy savings and to work with Solar United Neighbors to encourage all residents who are willing and able to adopt solar technology."

Solar United Neighbors has hosted 10 solar co-ops in Indiana since 2019. According to the group's estimates, the 83 homes and businesses that now have solar panels because of co-ops represent: 730.3 kW of solar power, $2.3 million in local solar spending and more than 26.9 million lbs. of lifetime carbon offsets.

A free solar 101 webinar will take place at 6:30 p.m. May 13. The webinars will offer information about solar energy.

Interested individuals can join the co-op through Sept. 30. More information can be found online at www.SolarUnitedNeighbors.org/Boone.