Solar cooperative purchasing groups, sometimes called Solarize programs, are a great way to bring attention to solar in a local area. But do homeowners get a better deal in a co-op or directly from a local solar installer?
In my previous article, I talked about questions that homeowners should ask before they sign up for a solar cooperative purchasing program. Now I’m going to outline the pros and cons of going solar at home through a solar co-op.
Sometimes called “solarize” programs, solar co-ops are temporary groups of homeowners who come together to purchase solar installations from a single solar company. These cooperative purchasing programs promise lower costs by helping the homeowners involved qualify for a bulk discount on the solar panels and other equipment needed to run a home solar energy system.
Usually, solar co-ops or solarize programs are organized by a non-profit organization. For example, now in our area, the Greater Roanoke Solar Co-op is sponsored by a statewide group, Solar United Neighbors of Virginia. Open to residents of Roanoke, Botetourt County, and Montgomery County, the co-op will finish enrolling members this summer and the installation company they chose will start putting up panels on homes after that.
Once they get their solar panels installed, the homeowners may remain connected to each other and to other solar homeowners through the non-profit group. That’s the case with the Roanoke co-op, as VA-SUN will encourage co-op members to become citizen-lobbyists for good solar energy policies in Virginia.
That’s a good thing for everybody — and we hope that homeowners who get solar through Main Street Solar will also become champions of solar power with their neighbors, family and friends.
Meanwhile, homeowners who are thinking of going solar in the near future and who have a co-op in their area should understand both the pros and the cons of solar co-ops to decide if this approach is right for them. So, here I’ll summarize a few of the main pluses and minuses of solar purchasing cooperatives for you to consider.
Pros of Solar Co-ops
- Great Way to Get Involved in Community Action. Once you’re in a solar co-op, you’ll get encouragement from the other members to spread the word on solar power. They may hold meetings and even send buses to Richmond or Washington, DC to lobby legislators to pass more laws to encourage solar power.
- Boosts Reputation of a Solar Installation Company. The solar installer chosen by the co-op could get a nice marketing bump for winning the contract to serve a solar co-op. Of course, if the company does not perform well, there’s a big risk that they could damage their brand too.
- Mobilizes a Community for Environmental Action. Activists like solarize programs and co-ops because they’re a way to get more citizens in a particular area involved in going green.
- Limited Choice of Options Makes It Easier to Decide. A solar co-op may only offer one choice of everything, from solar panels and inverters to monitoring software. This saves their members the trouble of having to learn about the options for themselves.
Will You Save Money by Buying as a Group? You’ll notice here that under Pros of a Solar Co-op I didn’t list the main selling point of solar co-ops, which is that you can save money by pooling your installation with your neighbors to get a bulk discount.
Unfortunately, as I explained in my previous article about solar co-ops, you don’t always save money through a solar co-op. In fact, you may actually pay more with a co-op than if you had gone directly to a local solar installer.
The cost per watt of every solar installation in a co-op is determined prior to the program launch regardless of current pricing and individual site specific details or the number of people that sign up. Aside from issues of quality, this one-size-fits-all approach may offer good value to some homeowners while others pay more for inferior equipment.
In addition, the non-profit group organizing the co-op gets a fee for every customer that is acquired, usually about $500 or $600 per installation. Since the installer needs to make up for that cost and still make a profit off of every installation, the installer may charge you more or use cheaper equipment — or both.
But you don’t have to just take my word for it. If you get a second opinion from an installer outside the co-op, as I recommend, chances are that outside installer will beat the co-op price. Main Street Solar is always happy to give a second opinion to anyone considering a solar co-op. Just ask us for a free quote.
Cons of Solar Co-ops
- Unnecessarily Restricts Consumer Choice. Forget about choosing one from Column A and two from Column B. With one single solar installer and usually one single option for equipment, you may have to take hardware that’s lower quality, or that’s fine for your neighbor’s house but doesn’t work well for your situation.
- Discourages Competition among Solar Installers. In the bad old days, many parts of Virginia had few or no solar installers serving their area. A solar co-op might have been the only way for homeowners there to go solar. But fortunately, things have really changed. Now, every part of Virginia has at least two or three solar companies serving the area. This means that solar co-ops are less necessary than they used to be.
- It’s Hard to Find the Right Installer. And There’s No Guarantee that You Will Succeed. The organizers of a solar co-op have to spend months soliciting quotes, interviewing solar installers and deliberating on the qualifications of each. Some people may enjoy this kind of volunteer work. But for others, the hassle involved in organizing a solar co-op is a turnoff, and they’d rather spend their time just reaching out to solar installers for themselves. To help you save time choosing a reputable solar installer, I did an article about how to separate the best from the rest.
- You May Have to Pay More than the Price You Were Quoted. In the contract of every solar co-op or solarize program is language about how the solar installer can swap in different equipment than they originally promised. This can raise the price you’ll have to pay through a solar co-op. Also, it can reduce the quality. My previous article talked about a man who was so upset that he got lower quality solar panels for the same price as better ones he was promised in a solarize program that he had the solar panels taken off his roof.
- The Installer May Try to Upsell You. The initial price quoted to members of a solar co-op may be complete or it may just be a come-on. Once you get into the nitty gritty and are ready to sign on, you may find that the installer will pressure you to get upgrades and add-ons that can significantly raise your cost.
- Discounts May Never Materialize. As I explained above, it’s very difficult for a solar installer to offer much of a discount through a solarize program or solar co-op, for two reasons. First, the installer has to pay a finders’ fee of $500-$600 to the non-profit group organizing the co-op, which the installer will have to pass along to the homeowner. Second, even with a couple dozen homeowners ordering equipment together, the numbers of solar panels and inverters are still usually not high enough to quality for discounts from manufacturers.
- Backlog of Installations Means Longer Waiting Time. Most solar co-ops have an outreach period of about six months. In addition, if a single solar installation company is getting so many orders at once through a co-op, then the company will develop a backlog of work. They can try to hire more workers to fulfill the extra demand, but once the solarize or co-op program is over, they may not need the extra employees anymore, so the company may just try to hustle to do more work with the same number of people. And that can mean that homeowners could have to wait months to get their solar panels installed. By that time, prices may have come down with other installers…but don’t expect any kind of rebate from a co-op installer if that happens.
Solarize programs and solar co-ops can be ways to mobilize a community behind solar power and kick start homeowners into getting solar now instead of waiting for some time in the future.
But these programs can also disappoint, with lower quality at higher prices and with a longer waiting period than just buying straight from a solar installer.
So, if you’re thinking of going solar through a co-op in your area, the best way to ensure that you have a good experience is to hedge your bets. That is, get a quote from the co-op but also get a second quote from another local installer who’s not in the co-op. You may be surprised that cutting out the middleman of the solar co-op helps you get higher quality at a better price and with less wait.
Main Street Solar is always happy to provide a second opinion for anyone considering going solar through a co-op. Just ask us for a free quote today. And we offer a full range of options for solar panels and other equipment to help get the right balance of price and performance for your particular situation.
— Andrew Brenner, Main Street Solar