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Solar power co-op for homeowners forming in county

5/19/16 | By Brian Gilliland, Associate Editor

(May 19, 2016) Recent conversations about solar power in the area have focused on mass scale, enterprise-level operations using acres and acres of land and both producing and selling gigawatt after gigawatt.

After a few meetings next month, a countywide effort may develop between homeowners throughout Worcester, each producing a piece of a larger puzzle that could significantly affect the way the county keeps the lights on.

The idea, as explained by Corey Ramsden, the Maryland program manager for the non-profit Community Power Network, is for residents to use their collective purchasing power to leverage a discount on installation fees for solar cells on their property.

“We’re agnostic on the reasons for adopting solar power — if they’re for environmental or independent causes,” he said.

The rewards, Ramsden said, are tangible. Apart from an initial outlay for installation and equipment, a solar power system has many advantages.

“Whether or not a system is right for you usually depends on three things: the space available, how much power you use and your budget. But there are ways to spread the cost out, like financing options,” he said.

Before incentives, Ramsden said, a solar power system designed for home use can cost anywhere between $9,000 and $20,000 installed.

Grouping customers into a cooperative situation can bring that cost down. Ramsden said the federal government provides an incentive good for 30 percent of the installation cost as a tax credit — not deduction — on income taxes. Maryland, he continued, will kick in a $1,000 grant if the home is a primary residence and is not within a historic district. The system will also generate “solar renewable energy credits” that can be used or sold individually or by a broker as electricity is generated, he said.

“If you were to buy a system outright, it would pay for itself in 8-10 years and these systems generally last 20 years,” Ramsden said. “In terms of offset, you should see a 30-70 percent reduction in your bill.”

A residence requires at least 200 feet of roof space to install a photovoltaic electric system, but those 200 feet all don’t have to be in one place. Ground-based systems are possible, but require more space.

“We generally don’t get into the ground systems,” he said. “We test to make sure your house gets enough sun. The hours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. are the most important.”

These systems are not intended to outright replace existing home-based electrical service. One reason is that the generated power can’t be stored, so it’s filtered back into the grid to be used by the customer as credits. Secondly, it rains.

In order to gain the critical mass of interested parties, MD Sun — the program Ramsden manages, organizes meetings. The first meeting will be held at the Train Station, 200 Belt Street in Snow Hill on June 23 at 7 p.m., and the second session will be held at the Ocean Pines Library, located at 11107 Cathell Road, at 7 p.m. on June 29.

Ramsden said as few as 25 people can form a cooperative arrangement, as he has set up in both Salisbury and Easton.

Once a critical mass is reached, Ramsden said his organization would help develop the request for proposal, which is then sent to various vendors. The members of the cooperative would then choose the installer from the proposals based on whatever factors it decided were most advantageous — a local contractor, perhaps, or the vendor offering the best price.  

Those decisions are farther down the road, Ramsden said.

“The process takes seven to 10 months based on the numbers and the location. It all starts with the 90-minute information sessions,” he said. 

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