New Manatee co-op could make going solar a breeze

Women are getting solar done.

Last year, the League of Women Voters created FL SUN, now Solar United Neighbors of Florida, in an effort to spread the prevalence of solar panel installations through the creation of co-ops.

Since then, 16 co-ops have sprung up across Florida. They have so far completed nearly 300 installations and its members spent on average between $14,000 and $23,000 each, according to the Solar United Neighbors website.

Now, it’s Manatee County’s turn.

Alice Newlon, the League of Women Voters of Manatee County’s conservation committee chair, said the idea came about during a “Hot Topics” discussion earlier in the year.

“Everything came together at the right time,” she said.

A solar co-op is made up of a group of homeowners interested switching to solar. Co-op members can sign up for free and don’t have an obligation to buy solar, but after a few months the co-op will close to new members. After the deadline, co-op members work with Solar United Neighbors of Florida to figure out what qualities are most important to them.

Requests for proposal will be doled out to various solar businesses and a bidding process occurs. The power is in the people: If the price, locale or warranty is right, members choose an installer, who then meets with members to figure out their solar needs and whose home qualifies.

For now, the group is gauging Manatee residents’ interest in going solar through homeowners’ association visits and outdoor markets. The planned sign-up period will be from January through April next year.

Some local solar companies said they were supportive of the idea but wary of what co-ops could do to the industry.

“It’s definitely driven down the cost of solar down, but I don’t know if that cost reduction is sustainabile,” said Bill Johnson of Sarasota-based Brilliant Harvest. “There are basic costs of doing these projects and I think some of the early co-op results ended up doing projects at below cost.”

The collective buying process could potentially be bad for the installer and the consumer, Johnson said.

“That company that did those installations is not going to be around to provide services and warranty coverage down the road because they didn’t make any money,” he said.

Dale Gulden of Manatee County-based Solar Direct said he was “happy if it results in more solar for people,” but he was concerned it could edge out smaller businesses.

“We fought the war (for solar) for over 30 years to bring it to where it is,” Gulden said.

Sarasota’s solar co-op began its journey at the start of this year. In all, they had 240 members sign up, said Carol Cooke, the natural resources chair of the League of Women Voters of Sarasota County.

When it came down to it, 71 members actually signed contracts with Solar Energy Management, a St. Petersburg-based solar provider.

Cooke herself was interested in rooftop solar, but decided against it because the panels would have had to face the street. To her, it would have been an “eyesore.”

Despite only one-third of members eventually going with the company, Cooke said the process was successful and went with ease.

Sarasota residents who missed the opportunity to join the co-op may have another chance, as Cooke said the group is discussing creating another one, possibly making it more exclusive. Cooke said that if the co-op was too big, it could be “unmanageable.”

“As each county gets experience, it’s a little bit easier for the ones following,” she said.

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse