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Philly homeowners are interested in solar energy. So why aren’t more installing panels?
Energy

Philly homeowners are interested in solar energy. So why aren’t more installing panels?

To meet Philly’s energy goal, at least 3,000 more homes must install solar panels each year.

In the two-and-a-half years since Philadelphia launched its residential solar initiative, more than 640 homeowners signed installation contracts. But locals’ adoption rate will need to pick up for the city to meet its ambitious energy goal – reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

“When we look at the citywide energy vision the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability laid out, they said we need to be adding 15 megawatts of solar every year if we’re going to be on track to meet those goals,” explained Laura Rigell, solar manager for the Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA). “And that’s about 3,000 homes [annually].”

Solarize Philly, the solar initiative of the PEA, started as a group buying program to help Philadelphians get discounted rates on solar installations. Today homeowners interested in adopting the alternative energy source can sign up with Solarize Philly and then undergo an assessment with one of PEA’s approved installers. Next they provide a free site-specific project proposal.

Between April 2017 and December 2019, more than 6,000 homeowners signed up for the free installation evaluation and proposal, according to the PEA. Of that group, the authority said, roughly 640 homeowners took the next step and inked a contract – with nearly one-third of those deals made in the last six months. (FYI: The waiting list is available for Solarize Philly’s next round.)

Despite the thousands curious about solar, the gap between sign-ups and signed contracts raises questions about how to turn interested homeowners into residential solar energy users.

For 2020, residents can take advantage of Philly’s Solar Incentive Program, which offsets the cost of installing solar panels by 20 cents per watt on residential properties, as well as an existing federal tax credit and discounts through Solarize’s group buying program.

Yet Rigell says these savings are not enough to convince homeowners. “We’re still looking at other ways we can ramp up solar, and drive the cost down,” she said.

One way worth trying, research shows, is strong community engagement.

Talk to your neighbors

A PEA survey of Solarize participants showed the highest close rate came from people who heard about the program by word of mouth, Rigell said.

The insight is backed up by a 2014 study, Spatial patterns of solar photovoltaic system adoption: The influence of neighbors and the built environment, published in the Journal of Economic Geography.

The researchers evaluated Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority data and found “one more installation within 0.5 miles of adopting households in the year prior to the adoption increases the number of installations in a [Census] block group by 0.44 [solar] systems on average.”

In other parts of New England, a willingness to “adapt to the unique needs of the jurisdiction and community” is key, said Salar Naini, vice president of business development for TurningPoint Energy.

TurningPoint, with Nautilus Solar Energy, began construction in November 2019 on Rhode Island’s largest community solar project.

“Education begins with the state and local leadership then down to the residents. In Rhode Island, we worked with the State Level Office of Energy Resources and the local communities where the projects are located to create educational materials for its residents. We also used a web based platform for education and subscriptions, which creates a more effective and user friendly experience for people who want to subscribe,” explained Naini.

Community solar projects are another option for Philadelphia, Rigell said, though in the near future, she hopes engagement efforts will help drive residential installations.

courtesy of Stephanie Haynes, a Solarize Philly Phase 1 participant

Connecting Philly communities

PEA’s Solarize already hosts seminars, conferences and other educational programs on solar installation, and additional outreach from community groups like West Philly Solar could be helping.

West Philly Solar, a roughly 2-year-old solar buying cooperative, partnered with the West Philly Tool Library, a nonprofit that loans home maintenance and garden tools, to hold a solar installation workshop last November.

Several homeowners, including Tim Siftar of West Philly Solar, answered questions about the neighborhood’s unique architecture – like its many flat roofs – and how that could affect installation.

Erin Gautsche, West Philly Tool Library program director, called the workshop useful for the locals, saying it’s “good for them to have an opportunity to talk with people who have houses similar to theirs who have done it, and to ask some questions about that.”

Siftar said four companies checked out his roof and each said it was too small to install solar. Refusing to take no for an answer, Siftar then reached out to others with hands-on installation experience to learn what he could do himself. Getting on his roof to do the work, Siftar said, wouldn’t have happened without interacting with his neighbors with more solar experience.

“We’re kind of confirming community, and we’re recognizing that we all have to get through this process,” Siftar said. “Everybody’s got to do this, and it’s not just for the rich people.”


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Shalon Baylis
Shalon Baylis is a freelance writer interested in nonprofits, arts and culture, and social impact. She uses her flexibility as a freelancer to engage in projects with publications, nonprofits, and startups. In her free time, she likes to imagine concept videos, dance and explore. View all posts by Shalon Baylis

5 thoughts on “Philly homeowners are interested in solar energy. So why aren’t more installing panels?

  1. Accounting teacher, here. I signed up for the evaluation and it simply did not make economic sense for me to do it given current incentives and costs. I love the idea, but will not pay more for it.

  2. PA residents should contact their Senators and Representatives to support fast passage of HB 531 and SB 705 giving Pennsylvanians the benefits of community solar. Currently solar is accessible to Pennsylvanians who own a home or business that is adequately sunny. This means that solar is off-limits to millions homeowners, renters and condo owners.

    These bills access solar, allowing citizens to subscribe to local community solar projects. Community solar lets anyone with an electric bill to purchase a share of a community solar project.
    Subscribers receive a bill / credit on their electric bills just like individual rooftop solar owners do.
    Community solar also makes it easier for households to participate as it lowers costs when compared to individual solar installations.

    HB 531 and SB 705 offers families and businesses a better choice to enjoy the benefits of green community solar.

  3. We were told design of our roof makes home not a good candidate. What’s a person to do? When will companies design panels suitable for the many old row homes in places like PHL, where residents express interest? There must be a solution, as solar power is being used in many ways throughout the world.

  4. The greatest payback from installing solar will be to your kids and grandkids. But for those looking at the ROI, most payback averages are around 10 to 12 years. If you add a backup battery, as we did with our Tesla solar system, and the grid goes down, your lights will stay on as long as the battery has a charge. We’re now adding more solar panels to get us closer to providing 100% of our electricity needs. The federal tax credit is 26% this year, and 22% next year, but will expire in 2022, so time is of the essence if you are seriously considering solar.

  5. I’m a sustainability engineer and was excited to take advantage of this program. However, the numbers just didn’t pencil out for our home. To add to that, if you finance the panels (which I would imagine most people would do), the numbers get even worse. We would have been paying an average of 30% more on average, even with the assumptions taking into account increases in electricity cost.

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