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Project of the Day: Community Power drives the Energy Internet

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
8th March 2012


Two projects underline the power of mutualizing resources in the quest to promote distributed energy generation:

1. Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative

“We are a diverse and growing group of families and friends who want to help solve the global problem of climate change one neighborhood at a time — starting with our own. Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop aims to make rooftop solar power convenient and affordable for everybody in our neighborhood which is located in central Washington D.C. near the National Zoo.

We are working with other communities to build a network of neighborhoods committed to solar energy and taking real action to reduce our dependence on carbon polluting energy.”

We were founded in the fall of 2006 by neighbors Anya Schoolman and Jeff Morley and their teenage sons, Walter Lynn and Diego Arene-Morley, because of the urgent need we felt to reduce our impact on global warming.

Two ideas led us to the coop model.

First, if we were going to go through all the work to figure out how to install solar technology, we decided we would have more impact by including more people in the project.

Second, we needed a way to make solar power less expensive. We hoped that through bulk purchase, and sharing expenses and expertise we could significantly bring down the cost.

The immediate goal is to make solar affordable, easy and widely available in our neighborhood. Our ultimate goal is to develop a model that can be tested in Mt Pleasant and then rolled out across any neighborhood in D.C. Washington.

The idea is that members will merely have to sign up—and they will get solar power installed on their roof.”

2. One Block Off the Grid

a buying club for people who want to get solar on their home. First, make it simple to understand. Then negotiate a fixed/transparent price for them, and vet the installer so that they don’t have to. Then offer impartial support along the way.

“While researchers have struggled for half a century to push down the cost of solar photovoltaic modules, an innovative web service is creating communities of customers who pay less for solar panels through collective bargaining with installers.

One Block Off the Grid collects groups of would-be solar purchasers in cities with good solar access and brokers a deal between them and a local installer. It’s internet-based environmental organizing, and it appears to be working.

In a campaign running in San Diego, their customers will pay just $5.29 per watt of power capacity. Even after paying for an inverter to convert the DC power the panels generate into the AC power appliances use, the total One Block Off the Grid price is substantially lower than the San Diego County average. According to California Energy Commission statistics, the average total cost of a solar photovoltaic system is almost $8 per watt.

Now, they are launching a new tool that will provide instantaneous solar price estimates, the first online tool to do so. The new interface went live Sunday.

“The power of the internet has not been harnessed by the solar industry,” said Brad Burton, who heads up products and strategy at 1BOG. “The components of viral growth and immediate person-to-person contact haven’t been explored at all.”

“Started in late 2008, 1BOG goes into different neighborhoods around the country, gets a large group of homeowners together who are interested in installing solar panels, educates consumers on solar energy, vets installers to find the best one and then negotiates a reduced price for the households in the group. The chosen installer then pays 1BOG a referral fee for each home. The fee is the same, regardless of which installer wins, to assure customers the referral fee does not affect the selection decision.

“We remove the really tough parts out of buying solar from the equation,” explained Dave Llorens, founder of 1BOG.

He estimates households who go through 1BOG typically get their solar installation bill reduced by 15 percent. But, he added, the community aspect of the program is as appealing as the price reduction.

“A big part of the reason this works is because it’s a group purchase,” he added. “You’re just infinitely more likely to believe this proposition of solar if your friend is like ‘Hey, I checked this out and it looks really good and you should check it out, too.’”

In 2009, the company helped 600 homes across the country install solar panels. This year, they expect that number to increase to 3,000 homes.

1BOG now has active solar campaigns in Northern New Jersey, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver, Phoenix and several cities in California. A campaign in South Jersey is launching on June 1.”

‘The biggest misperception about 1BOG is… that homeowners have to know their neighbors or live on the same block as other group members. In reality, One Block Off the Grid programs are large metro areas and homeowners never have to interact with other homeowners unless they want to.

The biggest challenge to overcome is… every state and city in the US presents an entirely different market with varied incentives, subsidies and policies around residential solar installations. This landscape can be difficult to navigate. Local governments need to work together to flatten the market to make solar accessible in any US city.”

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