Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A new Richmond co-op increases region’s solar options

A portrait of Gerena
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Charles Gerena is photographed on Monday, December 4, 2023 at Chesterfield County, Virginia.

New home solar installations declined in 2022, but increased 20% this year.

For the past seven years, Charles Gerena estimates his monthly electric bills have been cut by 65% to 70% after installing a home solar array.

“The lowest bill we’ve gotten with the solar has been $13,” Gerena said. Those savings come in the summer, when the sun rises high in the sky.

Gerena and Dorothy, his wife, wanted the solar system to offset a portion of their electric bill — sometimes well over $200 — which he said was high for their house's size. They also wanted to power an electric vehicle with clean energy. So, the couple started looking around at options.

“Both my wife and I are very much researchers,” Gerena said. “We really like to get all the information to make the best choice.”

But there’s a lot to consider with home solar: installers, upfront costs and system size, among others. Then Gerena attended an information session for a Richmond-based solar co-op assembled by the national nonprofit Solar United Neighbors.

“That really kind of took us over the finish line, because it answered a lot of the outstanding questions that we had,” Gerena said.

Then there was the cost. By organizing a large group of homeowners looking to buy solar, SUN negotiated a group rate with installers.

“We see about anywhere between 15% to 30% discounts,” said Aaron Sutch, a regional director for SUN.

Combined with the recently renewed federal tax credit, which allows home solar owners to write off 30% of the upfront installation cost from their income taxes, the discount can be significant.

After those rebates, SUN estimated a new small system rated at 4kW would cost about $7,500. Under the right conditions, that system could provide more than half of the electricity needed to power a home using 1,000 kWh each month, a benchmark used by electric utilities and regulators. Larger systems can cost twice as much. But the size of a system is up to the homeowner, who will consider their normal power usage and how much of that they want to offset with solar.

The actual output of a solar array is affected by factors like cloud cover, the angle of the panels and daily hours of peak sun.

Now, SUN is looking for members to join another Richmond-based co-op for solar panels and EV chargers. The nonprofit issued a request for proposals Sunday for local solar installers. A committee of co-op members will evaluate the bids they receive before deciding who to contract with.

Overall, getting set up went well for Gerena, whose solar panels have remained sturdy and efficient. The federally-funded National Energy Research Laboratory said most photovoltaic panels deteriorate at an average rate of less than 1% per year. Most panels are rated to last 25 to 30 years — and can then be recycled.

“One advantage with solar panels is that there's no moving parts to have to worry about,” Gerena said. “I mean, it’s bolted onto the roof, it’s not going anywhere.”

His panels have withstood rain, snow, wind and hail.

“Honestly, the main thing I've had to worry about is squirrels,” Gerena said, pointing to a tree with branches leading to the roof of his North Chesterfield home.

Squirrels have damaged some of the wiring and equipment, including the microinverters attached to each panel that convert the direct current produced by the array into usable alternating current electricity.

“But it's under [manufacturer] warranty ... so, we've had some microinverters replaced.”

Gerena and the company servicing his array can check on his system using an app that provides information on each of the 24 panels — which can help pinpoint specific issues. And although he hasn’t purchased any, Gerena said there are add-ons he can use to keep squirrels from getting under the panels.

However, Sigora Home — the Charlottesville-based company Gerena and other members of his co-op selected to install the panels — went out of business over the summer amid complaints of unfinished, shoddy or not-started work. Members of the company’s leadership have faced accusations of embezzlement, which they’ve denied.

Sutch, SUN’s regional director, said the nature of the solar industry is that companies are “constantly coming, some going.” He said SUN provides support for members of previous co-ops who are struggling to get help from their contractor — and can offer recommendations for local servicers who can work on most common parts of solar arrays.

The number of new home solar installations declined in 2022, but have increased 20% this year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The industry, like many others, has had a tough time coping with issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and attempts to build supply chains in the U.S. and other nations with free-trade agreements.

It remains unclear how the Inflation Reduction Act has affected solar developers; approvals for many large solar projects are tied up in regulatory pipelines. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has an optimistic lookout, predicting that solar installers will be one of the fastest growing jobs over the next decade as demand for home solar and larger-scale farms ramp up.

Right now, solar in the Old Dominion can power over a half-million homes — and it’s growing. According to SEIA, the commonwealth ranks 10th in the nation for installed solar capacity and is projected to be among the top 10 for new project installations during the next five years.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.