Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mt. Pleasant's Effect on the Solar System


What's green, likes the sun, and never stops producing energy? Answer: Mt. Pleasant. Or maybe the answer is Anya Schoolman, the energetic head of the Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop. The latter (the coop) is an organization dedicated to helping residents of Mt. Pleasant bring solar energy to their townhouses one at a time; the former (Schoolman) is its lead sun-worshiper that has found religion in bringing the message city-wide.

From humble origins three and a half years ago, the coop has grown to 350 members, 45 of whom have installed photovoltaic cells on their roofs, and has seeded similar coops throughout other DC neighborhoods. While not a collective financial institution as the name might imply, the organization helps individuals surmount hurdles associated with reducing reliance on the infamous grid. That's harder than it sounds. Schoolman says that even though subsidies make the decision a financial no-brainer, the process requires a large up-front investment and is fraught with difficulties, from installation of the panels and meters, filing tax credits, and dealing with PEPCO, to navigating the DC government's rules and adhering to historic preservation restrictions.

Schoolman hopes to change that, and is on a mission. The Mt. Pleasant resident says she has worked "about half time" on the issue since it began in 2006, when her son came home and thought, apparently with little clairvoyance, that it would be a "cool" thing to do. "It really came about with my son, who was 12 at the time, and his friend. They had gone and seen Al Gore's movie (not Love Story) and really wanted to do something. At that time it was very confusing and very expensive, we got contradictory advice...the tax credit was limited to $2,000, so we told the kids it was going to be hard and that it would take a couple of years."

That was optimistic. But financial incentives for solar have improved, thanks in part to those efforts. Schoolman says the average cost of installing solar is about $20,000 on a single family home, but the federal government will refund 30% of the entire cost in the form of a tax credit. On top of that, the District government rebates $3 per watt of system capacity, or about $9,000 for the average 3 kilowatt solar system. Then there are the utility companies that need to buy renewable energy purchase credits, which puts "about $900 per year" in the pockets of the typical homeowner, according to the evangelistic Schoolman. The credit is measurable thanks to an upgraded meter, which can run backward or forward, depending on which way the net energy is running. "Its a great deal. Over the lifetime, its an incredibly great investment," she says, noting that the payback time is only about three years on the typical installation.

But that's not what takes the breath away from Schoolman, a natural energy force in her own right. "The most important factor is that you get a natural reduction in your PEPCO bill. Most systems supply one-third to one-half of a home's electrical needs," says Schoolman, who can rattle off energy ratings, government regulations, and average monthly kilowatt hours without punctuation. "People hate PEPCO, there's so much satisfaction in just being able to get out from under your electric bills. People email me just to say how excited they are about the change in their electric bills since they started." That satisfaction comes back to her. "Its been really fun and satisfying, if I go up on my roof I can see seven solar systems just from my roof, that's really why we do it."

That subject naturally segues to the fierce debate in environmental circles about pushing small, easily adopted changes versus urging more fundamental change that, while more impactful, is less likely to be appropriated. Schoolman has an opinion: "Alot of policy makers see energy efficiency as the goal, with solar as a luxury, but installing solar is so tangible and makes it so real, that once you install solar people get really engaged in a way that they just don't with energy efficiency." Schoolman feels that energy efficiency can lead to a certain complacence, whereas with solar "once they see their bills drop it becomes a game to see how much they can save. Can they go totally off the grid? They totally understand the kilowatt usage. It becomes really inspiring and exciting."

Asked the inevitable question about its effect on property values, Schoolman notes that none of the solar-powered houses in Mt. Pleasant have tried to sell yet, so the empirical data just isn't there, but expects that this will become a strong selling point. Not to fear, she has an idea: "I think there's an emerging consensus that it would be more valuable if there were a disclosure requirement to show the years' utility bills. That way people could differentiate from these and other typical homes and it would show the relative value of solar, I think that's huge." She hopes for "another 10 to 20 houses going solar this year" just in Mt. Pleasant, but isn't stopping there. Her group has inspired 5 other coops in DC - Georgetown, Palisades, Brookland, Petworth and Shepherd Park, but Schoolman is "shooting for one in each ward." Hoping to increase the messengers and not just the message, Schoolman says she attends other coop meetings to give them logistical and practical support and encouragement. "Neighborhood roofs tend to have alot in common, so we can share information and there are a whole host of issues with the roof types."

Appreciative of the any financial incentives, Schoolman nonetheless is unimpressed with Washington DC's commitment to sustainable energy. "The only thing that limits this is that the DC rebate program has enough money to fund only about 200 houses per year," an amount she obviously thinks insufficient. "When we buy solar the money stays in our community; the installations are here - not like coal power. This is good for our local economy. We just wish they were more consistent about [the funding], it takes a while to build a base." Schoolman says the DC government "has not really made this program a priority. It was never really properly staffed and very poorly managed." As evidence, DC maintains a long waiting list for applications that don't yet have funding.

In that crusade, Schoolman has found a kindred soul in Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh introduced the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 that created the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), a third-party utility responsible for fostering sustainable energy in the District and, among other things, requiring a study of building a sustainable energy facility within - or sponsored by - the District. The SEU is expected to come online next year, overseen by the newly created Department of the Environment (DDOE), but while details get worked out both Cheh and Schoolman have seen a lack of leadership and accountability for sustainable credits and programs.

Cheh found the DDOE unresponsive and uncommitted. "They were dragging their feet and disorganized. I got them $2 million, but the money wasn't getting out the door even though the people were ready and had applied" said Cheh. In fact only about $600,000 was granted, and Schoolman and others had to pressure the District to roll the remainder over into the next year. "We had to fight to get the rest rolled over so it would be spent this year," says Schoolman. The funding now comes from a surcharge on every resident's PEPCO and Washington Gas bill, but only "a very small amount of that goes to solar, alot more goes to energy efficiency projects." Schoolman complains that during the recent budget proposals solar funding was cut back from $2m to $1.1m, but she and Cheh fought to push that back up to full funding.

Funding aside, both women found the District's concentration on the subject halfhearted, or worse. "I anticipated a three year period for it to come online...but they still can't get their act together. They had only one guy who wasn't even full time on this" said Cheh of the administration of energy credits and application processing. "There's no reason they shouldn't have been able to do it...they've been leaderless. They have done some good work over there, but it could be alot better." Cheh held an oversight hearing taking DDOE to task for their sluggishness, and a new Director has since been appointed by Mayor Fenty, events Cheh thinks will help focus DDOE's attention on the matter.

"Mary's been an incredible leader on this" says Schoolman. Still, the two are ideologically separated, with Cheh playing the pragmatist to Schoolman's passionate visionary. Asked about the expansion of solar funding or government mechanisms to push solar conversions, or solar requirements in new developments, Cheh prefers to sidestep being too wedded to one technology. "Not overdoing technology right now might actually be a boon to us as we expand the options that we have. I see this as accelerating, but there are other things we can do too. We also want to look at geothermal and cogeneration. There are places where they use the heat generated in the city, but solar is definitely going to be part of the mix, and I anticipate RECs (renewable energy credits) expanding."

To that effect Cheh has promoted the Energy Efficiency Financing Act of 2010, a bill introduced by the Mayor that would authorize the District to issue up to $250 million of revenue bonds to finance low-interest loans to District property owners to make energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. Property owners would repay the loans through an assessment on their property taxes.

Does the BP disaster add impetus to the demand for greener energy? Cheh thinks the District is already leading the way. "We're already getting close to being, if not number one, then at the top of the market. The problem is still racing forward without knowing where the technology is going." But the District does not quite rank at the top of renewable energy production by most measures, including those of the U.S. Department of Energy (despite hosting the solar decathlon), and many states have aggressive solar energy standards. The Councilmember points to more privatized solutions to meet the needs of sustainability. "The Willard Hotel greened its operations, it has been able to use its green approach to things. My bill requires you to benchmark your building for energy use and put it up on the internet, yearly. That gives you a comparative framework to judge efficiency." That approach squares with Schoolman's disclosure approach for energy costs in home sales, though the Willard has no mention of its energy efficiency on its website, taking some of the force out of the argument.

Schoolman says don't wait, buy now. "Alot of people are not early adopters and are watching to see how it will go, but I always tell people that the future of the DC credit is uncertain, so now is definitely the time to do it. If anyone has any questions about this they can email me." Really? Publish your email address so anyone can write to you? "Sure, if I can't help them I can send them to someone who can." Okay, its SolarCoop(at) yahoo.com. Schoolman says there are plenty of reliable independent contractors that can help through the process, including GroSolar, Maggio Roofing, Switch Energy, Standard Solar, and Capital Sun, though the District has a list of approved contractors that must perform the installation to qualify for the credit.

Surely her son and his friend (Walter and Diego Arene, both now 15) have long since found other types of sun worship and lost interest in the minutia of solar energy lobbying? "They're very involved" says Schoolman. "They come to meetings, they volunteer, they talk to the press, and explain about solar energy. Both are really into it." Perhaps Mt. Pleasant is on to something after all.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing project. All it took apparently was someone to put all the pieces together. Solar doesn't work for big buildlings yet since the tax credits and such only apply to homes. I hope this coop extends city-wide at some point.

Anonymous said...

The Capitol Hill Energy Coop http://capitolhillenergycoop.org is another offshoot. Anya and Mike from CHEC write a blog at http://solardc.blogspot.com/

I'm in line to receive the DC Rebate and should be somewhere between 10 and 15 in terms of homes on the Hill with solar panels.

For those who are interested, CHEC is doing a Solar Home Tour in October. See the website for details.

Anthony Conyers on Sep 22, 2010, 1:47:00 PM said...

Georgetown Energy has begun a solar co-op, and on October 10, 2010, in conjunction with 350.org, is lauching the First Residential Solar Installation in Georgetown's History. The final components will be installed on that day.

Free food and drinks for all comers!

See
www.georgetownenergy.com
for more details.

 

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