The solar co-op effort, which originated in Portland in the summer of 2009, made its next stop in Salem yesterday with a goal of bringing solar energy to 100 area residences. The initiative is part of a grass-roots model that provides bulk-pricing to homeowners who want to install solar panels on their homes.
Community-organized programs that bring solar energy to homeowners at a reduced price have popped up throughout the state over the last year. Salem is the fifth community to organize a project; the others are scattered in Portland, Beaveton and Pendleton. The Solarize Salem program is a special project of the Salem Creative Network, a nonprofit that works for social change within the community.
The incentive to go solar as a group is that the organizers do a lot of the grunt work. The group coordinators find a contractor and complete the bidding process and home owners reap the benefits of a rate that can save them 10% to 30% on their system. The cheaper rate in combination with federal and state tax incentives makes solar much more affordable. The Statesman Journal reported that a round of solar projects through Solarize Southeast Portland would have cost on average $20,000, but through the program the cost averaged $3,000 to $4,000.
Solarize Salem launched their program Monday morning at the state capitol with a goal of installing 100 photovoltaic systems to area residences. As part of the program homeowners must attend a free workshop to learn about solar options and submit an application choosing between two discounted systems: the buy-local option with modules made from Hillsboro-based SolarWorld at $5.50 per watt, or the value package priced at $5.35 per watt that uses components built in Asia. The difference is up to $500.
The Salem program gives consumers more choice than what’s been offered in other cities. Other groups have organized a deal with one contractor to provide the product to all interested parties. Ross Swartzendruber, the Salem coordinator, decided to go against advice from past Solarize projects to provide more options for homeowners.
“We know consumers like choice and being able to choose between two different contractors is a huge advantage,” said Swartzendruber. “One of our main goals through Solarize Salem is to build the local infrastructure for solar energy here locally and we thought the more contractors that we use the more possibility [the contractors] would hire locally.”
The Salem project also managed to get each firm to donate one 3-kilowatt SolarWorld system to a school within the Salem-Keizer School District. Swartezendruben hopes consumers will choose the Hillsboro SolarWorld panels, with component parts made in Bend, despite the cost difference.
“We are very interested to see who chooses the Oregon product, but we provided a value package because the Asian components are a cheaper price and we know is a sensitive market,” said Swartzendruben. “To let the consumer have a choice is the best way to go about it.”
Solar projects have skyrocketed in Oregon since 2008. This year alone there have been 336 residential solar installations, and there are at least another 180 in the works, according to The Statesmen Journal.
Previous solar projects have been criticized for having an unfair bidding process that handed all the business to one big-time contractor. In an effort to combat that criticism Salem chose to give two separate Portland contractors a bid: Solar City and RS Energy. Solar City already recieved bids from the Solarize NE Portland and Solar Beaverton, while RS Energy, a smaller contractor, had entered the bidding process before, but hadn’t received a bid until Solarize Salem.
In order to land Salem, RS Energy teamed up with several sub-contractors and fine-tuned their proposal to stay competitive.
“We think that one of our strongest offerings is that we offer a team of folks and not just one installer, so that allows us to run multiple crews to get through folks that are interested quicker,” said David Richards at RS Energy. “We’ve actually received a lot of clients in the Portland area who considered the Solarize programs but realized that it was taking up to three months sometimes for a contractor just to come out and do an evaluation when we can get out in a matter of days.”
Richards thinks the contract will allow them to add at least one employee to the staff depending on how quickly demand rises and possibly add additional positions across the board later.
Despite previous reports that solar modules from companies such as SolarWorld are backlogged until November or December both Swartzendruben and Richards say the product is ready and Solarize Salem will have access without interruption. Swartzendruben said participants could expect installations this week if all goes to plan.
Jessica Hoch is an online reporter for Oregon Business.