As Charlottesville and Albemarle County are attempting to reach their climate goals, both are encouraging residents to consider installing solar panels on their homes.
The jurisdictions have partnered with the nonprofit Local Energy Alliance Program, or LEAP, to promote the Solarize campaign.
“Through Solarize, they’ll get 10 to 15% below market rate,” co-director of LEAP Katie VanLange told The Daily Progress. “Folks who come to program know they’re getting a trusted installer and discount pricing.”
The program is intended to incentivize people to consider getting solar panels installed on their home by educating them on the benefits of the renewable energy while also offering discounted rates for installation.
The city has been working with LEAP for upwards of a dozen years, according to Emily Irvine, Charlottesville climate protection program manager.
“Home solar has been something the city has been interested in pushing for a long time but in January this year we formally adopted our climate action plan,” Irvine told The Daily Progress. “So this year we’re really leaning into the Solarize campaign in a new way because it really helps our community members take direct part in reaching the city’s climate goals.”
Those goals include a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030, carbon neutrality by 2050 and to have 10% of the city’s rooftop solar potential built out by 2030.
Irvine said only 2.5% of buildings in Charlottesville today that are viable for rooftop solar actually have panels installed.
The Solarize program was launched in 2014 and has helped more than 1,000 households across the commonwealth, VanLange said.
Every year, solar developers from across the state and nation send requests for proposal to LEAP, which selects one of the companies based on its history, years in the business, warranty options, equipment, references and other factors.
“We’re looking at the full package,” VanLange said. “Someone might have really low pricing but maybe is a brand new company that doesn’t’ have much customer support or hasn’t demonstrated an ability to stay in market.”
This year, Solarize selected Converter Solar and Charlottesville’s own Tiger Solar. VanLange said both companies have been really impressive and have gotten positive feedback from program participants.
“Companies basically give us discounted pricing because so many people are interested in participating in the program that we’re able to get bulk rates,” VanLange said.
In addition to the discounted rates that can save people up to 15% on installation costs, interested parties can also get a free assessment on their home to determine if it’s a good candidate for solar panels.
Irvine noted that due to the Inflation Reduction Act, people can get additional savings via federal tax credits.
“It’s an extra good time to go solar because of federal incentives available at the moment,” Irvine said. “People can get a 30% federal tax credit if they do any kind of solar installation. It’s extra savings that can be realized on top of the Solarize campaign.”
Still, the upfront costs of installing solar panels can be expensive. Often customers will use financing to cover the cost of installation and make monthly payments. VanLange said it’s not much different than paying a monthly electricity bill, calling it “an investment.”
“On average we see electricity customers in Virginia spend $180 a month and that rate is increasing at 2% a year. When you get solar you are not beholden to those rate increases anymore,” she said. “In about 10 years, that’s all just money going into your pocket. We’re not going to pretend it’s free but because of monthly savings on electric bills it makes it more affordable and reasonable for the average person to go solar.”
The last day to sign up for this year’s Solarize program — which one can do by filling out an online form without having to commit to solar or sign a contract with installers — is Aug. 31. Already halfway through the campaign, LEAP said it is seeing many people sign up.
“We’ve already exceeded the total sign ups from 2021 and are on track to see more than 2022 as well,” Brian Campbell of LEAP told The Daily Progress in an email.
Signing up does not mean committing to an installation. In fact, of the 1,492 people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County who have signed up for the program since 2014, just 161 got solar installed, Campbell said.
If nothing else, the program gives people a free lesson on solar so they can make an educated decision on whether or not it is the right choice for them.
Many big national solar companies often deploy aggressive sales tactics, according to VanLange. “They’ll go door to door telling people it’s basically free. But then there are a lot of hidden fees,” she said.
An advantage of the Solarize program, apart from the financial savings, is that LEAP vets all of its installers.
“There are a lot of bad actors in this space and you don’t’ know who to trust. You don’t know what’s a good price or if there are hidden fees,” VanLange said. “We’re doing that research up front so you can at least know you’re getting a good rate from a trusted partner.”
Even though she runs the Solarize program, VanLange said it took her a year of learning more about the renewable energy before she committed to putting solar on her own home.
“We want to ease people into the process and make sure they understand it and feel good about the investment they’re making,” she said.
The next seminar on the program will take place on Aug. 17.