By Heather Saunders
In October 2015, the community group Transition Town Media launched Solarize Greater Media. The idea was clever: Take the hassle out of residential rooftop solar power by doing the homework for homeowners and offering a volume discount. TTM vetted installers, negotiated prices, and even worked out a home equity loan package. Information sessions helped get the word out; roughly 280 people signed up to receive estimates for their homes, and by the mid-June deadline, 50 had signed contracts.
Eleven months later, 37 homeowners have had rooftop solar systems installed as part of the Solarize Greater Media initiative. A Few Steps talked to one of those families, Janice and Ralph Ciampa of Swarthmore, to hear about their experience. Their summary verdict? “We’d do it again!”
The Ciampas describe the process of getting their solar array installed as quite manageable and only minimally disruptive. Solar States, the SGM contractor, prepared multiple proposals for their review. They settled on a system of 20 panels at a total cost of about $20,100. A 30% Federal tax credit reduced the project cost by about $6,000, and the volume discount promised by SGM delivered a rebate of $1,800, for a net project cost of approximately $12,300. Assuming a monthly savings on their electric bill of $150 (as estimated by the contractor), the Ciampas were looking at a payback period of less than seven years.
The Ciampas had several factors working in their favor: their roof has perfect southern exposure, isn’t shaded by trees, and was already 25 years old and due for replacement – an expense they would have incurred with or without solar. Their solar array went into operation in mid-July 2016, and when the sun shines, it produces more electricity than their two-person household requires. The excess is fed into the grid, and PECO credits them for it. At night, the Ciampas draw power from the grid in the usual way.
So how much are they saving? It appears they saved about $100 to $140 per month, compared to 2015-2016 billing. The real surprise came in April of this year, with a bill in the amount of $8.44 — PECO’s minimum standing charge for net energy use of zero kilowatt hours! Both electricity usage and the year-on-year savings provided by solar are likely to rise in the summer months, when production will be highest and air conditioning boosts the family’s electricity consumption.
As for the larger picture, having achieved more than 30 installations, Solarize Greater Media was able to claim the maximum discount agreed with Solar States — about 10%, awarded as rebates to participants in the program. However, while the Ciampas’ installation went smoothly, Sari Steuber, of Transition Town Media, reports that 16 of the original 50 homeowners who planned to participate in the Solarize campaign were denied approval by PECO. The aging power grid in our region was designed to send power to houses, not to take it in, and the utility has the right to object to rooftop arrays that could overwhelm the system. Solar States pursued the discussion with PECO on behalf of those who were denied. At the time of writing, six of the 16 had agreed to pay for relatively inexpensive solutions and now have their systems up and running. A further six are still pursuing alternatives.
Meanwhile, it seems the Transition Town Media team may have started something. Steuber reports there are three Solarize-style initiatives currently underway in Philadelphia, and they are drawing on the experience of Solarize Greater Media.