Transforming the U.S. Electricity System, One HOA at a Time Unfortunately

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never once used an electron produced by a rooftop solar system in any house or apartment I’ve ever lived. As a big supporter of solar in my personal and professional life, my hypocrisy knows no bounds. However, I’ve recently tried to take steps to change this even without a rooftop to call my own.

I rent a small apartment in a ~50 unit building that gets its electricity from Holy Cross Energy. About 40 percent of my electricity comes from natural gas and renewables. But over half of the electricity produced by my utility comes from coal-fired plants. This—along with rising electricity prices and a new personal mandate to put my money where my mouth is—pushed me to learn more about what a renter could do. By engaging with local energy efficiency and renewable energy companies, my apartment building’s homeowners association (HOA), and neighbors, I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out how to meet at least some of the building’s energy demand with local renewable energy.

A number of difficult questions came up almost immediately: How are landlord-tenant payment issues handled? Will owners or renters take the brunt of any upfront costs? Are the individual units sub-metered to see how much electricity or hot water is being used in each? When does the roof need to be re-done? How will construction affect tenants? Will there be roof penetrations? Logistically, how would solar panels get on the roof?

After weeks of discussion, the HOA board decided to consider two options.

1. Solar thermal: A local contractor’s survey of the rooftop on one building in my complex revealed that a solar thermal system could offset one-third of the building’s hot water and space heating load, and could be economically installed.
2. Community solar: Clean Energy Collective’s discussed in my colleague Kelly Vaughn’s blog community solar option immediately grabbed the HOA board’s full attention due to its low upfront cost and convenience.

The board’s interest in community solar came as a bit of a surprise. Initially, I liked the idea of having a system installed on my building’s big, flat, sunny roof so my neighbors and I would see day-to-day that our computers and appliances were being at least partially powered by clean electrons. But, after witnessing the HOA board’s positive reaction to community solar first hand, it’s now my perspective that the community solar business model has the ability to vastly increase demand for solar energy.

Much has been written about community solar lately, and yet its potential has been largely understated. A recent Greentech Media guest post described how community solar can offer power customers solar electricity and reduced energy bills, while rendering many of the questions raised above obsolete.

Community solar simply gives more people greater solar access. It lets families and individuals go solar regardless of their home ownership status; systems can be optimally cited on brownfields or un-shaded large rooftop spaces where solar potential is greatest; and construction issues like roof penetrations and roof renewal timeframes go by the wayside. Additionally, community solar is able to involve more participants from a wider pool of customers with less than perfect credit ratings because community solar programs are less risky than prevailing residential lease or power purchase agreement models.

In effect, phase one of setting up our future solar system (or program) is complete: there’s definite interest—especially in the community solar option—from the board and most tenants I’ve spoken with. Now comes the more difficult phase two: getting the board to commit to one or both option(s). HOA boards have to deal with a lot of issues—from dead grass to chipping paint—that are often time sensitive. Therefore, it has been an ongoing challenge to get all board members in the same room to commit to definitive next steps, such as officially presenting options to homeowners and tenants in my building. But these things don’t happen overnight, and I hope to be able to report on our progress in a few months time, as I remain confident that HOAs are a great leverage point to driving forward efficiency and clean energy solutions at a community-level.

RMI supporters often ask how they can do more to make the future we describe in Reinventing Fire a reality. In the electricity space, here’s my answer: go solar. If you own a home, do some initial research to see if a solar system will help save you some money (sometimes from the first day the system is turned on!) or check out group purchasing programs near you.

If you’re like me and your rooftop space isn’t your own, investigate community solar options in your area or, if none currently exist, go directly to your HOA and see what kind of appetite there might be for development of a new program. If you own a business, simply Google “commercial solar” and reach out to an installer near you.

The solar industry will continue to grow and innovate in order to make solar increasingly affordable for everyone. But for now, it will ultimately fall to folks like you and me to take that first step and pick up the phone or walk to the HOA office and start the solar conversation.