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Solar power for the masses reaches Charlotte

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Bruce Henderson -
Michael Zytkow, Solarize Charlotte

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    MORE INFORMATION: cleanerischeaper.com



A three-month campaign to broaden the appeal of rooftop solar systems has declared success in its aim of making them cheaper and simpler for Charlotte-area homeowners.

Solarize Charlotte launched in the hometown of the nation’s largest electric utility, Duke Energy, in April. The volunteer-run program offered discounts on installations and connected homeowners to tax savings and low-interest loans.

“One of the issues we all recognized was that even as solar dropped in price, people saw barriers,” said project assistant Michael Zytkow. “So the goal is to help with everything involved.”

About 600 people expressed interest in the program, of which 186 solicited proposals for systems. Twenty-four homeowners signed installation contracts, six made verbal agreements and 10 contracts are pending. Another 89 projects are still in the consultation stages.

North Carolina ranks fourth-largest in the nation for its solar capacity, says the Solar Energy Industries Association, but that’s mostly because of commercial-scale installations.

Duke Energy says about 1,700 North Carolina customers, most of them affluent, own rooftop solar systems. Solarize Charlotte’s focus included lower-income and non-white homeowners.

Initiative moved east

“My philosophy is that solar should be for everyone,” said Zytkow, whose full-time job is as a Greenpeace field organizer. “My background of activism is in meeting people where they are.”

Solarize Charlotte was an outgrowth of an initiative born in Portland, Ore., five years ago and adopted by dozens of communities under Energy Department-funded guidelines.

A coalition of more than 20 nonprofit advocacy groups and churches brought it to North Carolina. Similar programs have launched in Asheville, Carrboro and Durham.

The Charlotte campaign worked with a solar company, the RED Group, that offered bulk discounts on installations. State and federal tax credits pare the cost, and the program led homeowners to low-interest loans.

Cut cost of systems

All told, organizers say, those incentives could take up to 75 percent off the retail price of a solar system. Typical Solarize systems, including tax credits, cost about $4,500 to $8,000.

Solar panel prices have dropped sharply in recent years, and the arrays are now thinner and more aesthetically pleasing. The expiration of North Carolina’s 35 percent tax credit at the end of 2015 has also stimulated interest.

Still, “it takes a lot of consumer education to get people to the point where they’re ready to go solar,” said Cynthia Redwine, a partner in RED Group, a 2-year-old company formed by former Peace Corps volunteers.

Some potential customers, for instance, believe that net metering – in which utilities give homeowners with solar systems credit for the energy they generate – means they have to live off the grid, she said.

Starting in late April, Solarize volunteers went door-to-door, bought radio ads, staffed festival booths and made presentations to homeowners associations, clubs and churches.

Savings biggest factor

The campaigners pitched the environmental and economic aspects of solar power, but found most people responded to rising electricity rates.

“At the end of the day, that’s what resonates with people – their power bills,” Zytkow said. “One of the first things you hear out there is the idea of these (utility) monopolies. They’re captive customers, and they don’t have any options. A lot of it is rallying around the concept of choice.”

Charlotte homeowner Terry Taylor-Allen, a communications consultant on energy, environment and sustainability, heard about Solarize at a conference and quickly signed up.

Taylor-Allen and her husband, Mark Allen, had considered solar for years but hesitated at trying to sort through its technological aspects and financial viability.

“The very nice thing about Solarize Charlotte is that they sort of anticipate those wrap-around needs and solved those problems,” she said. “From that perspective, it’s a really, really good program. It facilitates a lot of decision- making.”

Their rooftop panels started generating electricity July 14.

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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