What Is ‘Solarize’?: Save on Solar Power with Community Bulk Ordering

Reader Contribution by Vikram Aggarwal and Energysage
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You’ve probably seen yard signs for Solarize campaigns around your neighborhood. But what exactly does it mean to solarize? Is it really a new verb? Here we’ll explain the basics of a Solarize program, plus what the pros and cons are for your community.

What is Solarize? Community Solar? Group Solar?

Solarize programs can go by a variety of names; all are in essence a means by which groups of buyers can secure a lower price for solar installations through bulk ordering. A municipality, employer or other local organization chooses one company in the area to serve as the solar installer for their community’s Solarize program. Due to volume discounts, the solar installer can negotiate a price that’s often lower than what individual homeowners could achieve. In fact, the price tends to fall as more and more people join the program. To bring in as many homeowners as possible, the community organizer and solar installer typically launch a six-month campaign to educate community members about the benefits of going solar. After the educational campaign is finished, the installer then spends the next six months installing all the solar energy systems for homeowners who participated. Vote Solar, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and the Connect Green Bank have all organized Solarize programs for communities in the past.

The Pros of Solarize Programs

Great Way to Be Involved In Community Action.Being involved in a Solarize program can be a great way to take part in a larger movement within your community, and work with people who share similar goals.

Reputation Boost for Chosen Installer. Solarize programs are a great accolade for the installer that is ultimately chosen by the community. Many solar installers will use their selection for a Solarize program in future marketing materials.

Good Way to Accomplish a Shared Environmental Goal. If a town or municipality has a renewable energy or environmental goal, launching a Solarize program can be a great way to help them achieve it quickly.

Lower Risk to Take Action as a Group. As the expression goes, “there’s safety in numbers”. This is the driving idea behind Solarize programs, as larger groups tend to have better leverage in price negotiations with installers and outside parties.

Limited Choice Makes Decisions Easier.If you only have a few options when evaluating solar energy systems, then choosing the best one for you is a much shorter, simpler process.

The Cons of Solarize Programs

Unnecessary Restriction on Consumer Choice.Working with only one installer restricts the choices that consumers would otherwise have in terms of design and equipment. What’s right for your neighbor’s house or budget may not be right for yours, but using only one solar installer in a community restricts the options available to consumers.

Discourages Competition. Solarize programs were necessary when it was hard to find qualified installers, but now there are generally several well-established and reputable solar installation companies in each community.

Time Intensive to Find the Right Installer. Finding an appropriate installer can cost the organising body time and money, as it usually involves a lengthy review process. This is money and effort that could be spent elsewhere.

The Price You’re Quoted Isn’t Always the Actual Price.In most cases the price negotiated by the community organization is for the installer’s most basic solar energy system. The homeowner should expect higher costs if they want different panel types or colors, a higher efficiency inverter, or any sort of change from the basic package.

Backlog of Installations. The community education process often lasts six months, and during this period a backlog of new home installations can build up. This buildup can have an adverse effect on both the installer and homeowner. For the homeowner, by the time their installation takes place the price of a solar installation may have already dropped below the price they originally agreed upon. For the installer, having a boom and bust cycle in terms of installation volume can force them to hire and fire workers at irregular intervals.

Solarize programs can be a great way to motivate a community to achieve a common goal, and played a valuable role in the early days of solar. But the solar energy industry has matured rapidly over the last few years, and there are often more efficient ways to achieve one’s solar installation goals. Online solar marketplaces offer much more choice and transparency to solar shoppers, and $0-down solar leases can provide an alternative for cash-strapped homeowners. We recommend that interested parties weigh the pros and cons of Solarize programs carefully, given the restrictions it places on consumers, pressure it puts on installers, and time it demands of community organizers.

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