Scientific American: Don't Go Solar Solo!

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One of the many challenges of using both emerging technology and pre-industrial building techniques comes when the adobe architect, solar power installer or graywater recycler runs up against city codes that are either outdated, ignorant or designed to bolster the entrenched building supply and construction industry. The point being, as with so many other things in life, is that it’s a lot more fun to stand up to the bastards with a little help from our friends. Scientific American has a new blog called “60-Second Solar” where George Musser reveals the tips ‘n’ tricks of installing solar panels, and in this installment he turns the keyboard over to a dude from Washington D.C.’s Mt. Pleasant Solar Cooperative, who tells us how they got together, and how you can do something similar in your town.

An excerpt from “The pleasant way to go solar: neighborhood cooperatives”:

“I figured we could get something going within a year. Boy, were we wrong. As we grappled with what was actually involved in making our dreams real, we spent two years climbing the solar power learning curve, and it was steep.

First of all, we hit the reality that solar power is relatively expensive, costing up to a third more than carbon-based energy sources. If we were going to do something, we had to figure out how to cut every cost possible. Second, the economies of scale that we envisioned simply don’t exist in residential solar installations; at least that’s what veteran solar installers around Washington told us. Third, the practical realities of going solar in a cost-effective way turned out to be fiendishly complex set of interrelated problems.

We learned, for example, that holding down the price of solar power depended, in part, on the implementation of solar-friendly practices such as “net metering” and “smart metering” by our local utility, the Potomac Electric Power Company, otherwise known as Pepco. But Pepco’s willingness to do right by solar customers depended on the views of the local Public Service Commission (PSC), a powerful but opaque body that moved with the speed and friendliness of a glacier. The PSC, in turn, looked for guidance from the D.C. City Council, a dozen elected officials from a majority African-American city, who were hearing complaints that a previous solar rebate program amounted to a handout to wealthy whites.

Amidst this welter of conflicting forces, our beautiful but innocent idea of neighborhood solar power was not enough. We needed expertise to give our project credibility with decision makers who could deliver real financial benefits for our members. So we scaled back our ambitions and started with smaller steps. We touted basic energy-efficiency measures to our members as the prerequisite for going solar. (Drafty windows and outdated appliances waste solar energy just as fast as they waste carbon energy!) We arranged for discounted home energy audits for our members. We bought compact fluorescent bulbs wholesale and sold them at cost to Coop members. And we started networking with City Council aides, national green groups, PSC members, and industry experts seeking advice about how to make solar power cheaper and more accessible.”

Click here to read the whole thing over at Scientific American.

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