Sunshine Co-op on the Horizon
By Jeremy Morrison
Solar power excites financial advisor Jacey Cosentino. She seems to light up just talking about getting power from the sun.
“Both sides of my roof are exposed to sun,” she said, literally beaming as she described the rooftop solar power system she has installed on her property.
“I live on a farm in Beulah, and I have five buildings,” Cosentino continued. “I felt like I was throwing money out the window, and I didn’t like the idea of contributing to the burning of fossil fuels.”
Cosentino estimates her solar system covers as much as 90 percent of her power needs. Whereas her power bill used to be around $500 a month, it currently runs between $50 and $100.
“In the winter, it’s a little bit more because the sun is out less,” she said.
When Cosentino had her solar system installed, she went it alone. She had to educate herself about solar power and then go about finding someone to survey her site and install the system.
The financial adviser had heard of solar co-ops, but that wasn’t an option.
“I’d read about it in other areas,” Cosentino said. “They get a lot better prices because they’re all doing it together.”
The lack of solar co-op options locally could be about to change.
Soon, Escambia and Santa Rosa residents looking to install rooftop solar power may have the ability to explore the option as a group. Over the course of this summer, Solar United Neighbors (SUN), a national nonprofit, is working to organize a collective of property owners interested in exploring the co-op option.
“We are not selling solar; we’re all about helping people go solar,” explained Julia Herbst, SUN’s Gulf Coast co-op coordinator.
SUN is active in 13 states. The organization works to educate people about the benefits of solar power and the process of getting the necessary infrastructure in place.
“The real backbone of our co-op is our education sessions,” Herbst said.
In addition to acting as an educational and networking source, the co-op model is also designed to get solar customers a better rate for solar installation because they approach contractors as a collective.
“They get together in someone’s living room and review bids,” Herbst explained, adding that the group approach typically attracts bids from throughout the region. “These prices are really competitive. We see some nice savings.”
After a co-op group has selected a particular solar installer, the installer visits the individual property sites and evaluates how solar might benefit each site. After the assessments and following quotes, the individual co-op members decide if they want to continue as part of the group or pursue other options on their own.
In addition to being an option that might make sense for individual solar customers—either residential or small-business properties—Herbst said that contractors are usually pretty hip on the co-op model as well.
“We’re bringing a large set of informed, hungry customers to a contractor,” she said, explaining that the co-op will likely consist of 20 to 30 property owners.
A Local Example
SUN has already conducted a couple of local sessions for interested solar customers. There’s a few more throughout the summer in various locales in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
“We held our actual launch of the co-op at a solar-powered brewery,” Herbst said.
That initial meeting was at A Little Madness Brewing Company on North Davis Highway near UWF. The brewery has solar water heaters incorporated into their brewing process.
“Five panels on the roof, the water feeds through all of them,” said David Beddick, who co-owns A Little Madness with his wife Dayna Beddick.
SUN’s choice of A Little Madness for its initial local meeting wasn’t coincidental.
In addition to employing solar power at the brewery, the Beddicks have also entered in the nonprofit’s annual Brews from the Sun competition. The contest is open to breweries using solar power.
“It’s to shine the light on some breweries that are trying to do the right thing,” Beddick said.
If A Little Madness doesn’t clinch the prize this year, they can keep trying as the brewery adds to its solar arsenal. Beddick said there are plans to construct awnings outside to support solar PV panels so the business can begin to offset its energy usage.
“We’ll have the photovoltaic out there,” he said.
SUN has four additional informational sessions planned for this summer:
6 p.m. Thursday, June 20
Pace Community Center, 5976 Chumuckla Highway, Pace
6 p.m. Tuesday, July 23
Pensacola Library (Meeting Room B), 239 N. Spring St.
6 p.m. Monday, Aug.12
Ever’man Education Center, 327 W. Garden St.
6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13
Tiger Point Park Community Center, 1370 Tiger Park Lane, Gulf Breeze
For additional information on the organization, visit solarunitedneighbors.org.