Discounts offered to help ‘solarize’ DeKalb

A grassroots campaign to boost solar energy in DeKalb County through the power of bulk purchasing has drawn interest from more than 500 families and businesses.

The Solarize Decatur-DeKalb program, the third effort that the organizers have put together in Georgia since 2015, promises bigger discounts as more people and firms sign up for solar energy. At the upper end, they can save more than 25 percent on solar installations compared to when customers go it alone, according to the organizers, mostly non-profit environmental and community groups.

But so far, only about 30 homeowners and one business have signed contracts. The sign-up deadline is Dec. 31.

Jane Turner, president and co-owner of A.S. Turner & Sons, a 113-year-old year-old Decatur funeral home that is participating, wishes more businesses were signed up because it could mean bigger savings for her.

Small-scale solar projects have been slow to take off in Georgia.

Solar advocates blame a handful of causes. Trees shade many potential customers' roofs. Georgia's electricity rates are low compared to rates in many states. And Georgia utilities typically pay lower rates for so-called "net-metering," in which customers are paid for surplus power their solar units feed back onto the grid.

Still, Solarize Decatur-DeKalb’s backers say they’re happy with the results so far, and expect to roll out up to eight more campaigns next year in cities and counties around metro Atlanta and Georgia.

“We really want to open this up next year to as many communities as we can,” said Don Moreland, of Solar CrowdSource.

The Kennesaw firm, which is running the online platform for the campaign, teamed with four environmental and community groups, including the Sierra Club and the City of Decatur’s Environmental Sustainability Board, to push for wider adoption of solar power.

The carrot: help with evaluating whether solar power makes sense on customers’ homes or businesses, and bulk-purchase agreements with two local contractors who agreed to lower their prices as more customers sign up for solar installations. The project contractors are also working with Norcross-based Suniva, one of the nation’s largest solar panel manufacturers, to supply their solar panels.

“A lot of folks, they just don’t know where to begin,” said Moreland. “There’s been a couple of hundred of these (solarize programs) around the country, and we’re trying to kick these off in Georgia.”

Third solar project

This is the third community solar project in Georgia for the group. The first project was last year on Tybee Island, where the group signed up sixty homes and businesses for roof-top solar units with a total capacity of 360 kilowatts of power. Athens was the second project, with 78 customers for 430 kilowatts of power.

The typical house uses about 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month. One kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy a 1-kilowatt solar unit would produce in an hour in full sunshine if it was operating at top efficiency.

The Decatur/DeKalb campaign started in early September.

“Our goal is we would like to hit 134 (solar units),” said Russell Seifert, founder of Creative Solar USA, the Kennesaw firm that is handling residential installations for the group. That would triple the number of solar-powered homes in DeKalb County, which totaled 66 before the project began, he said.

“I think we’ll be pretty close,” said Seifert. “The folks in Decatur seem very open.”

Donna Brogan and Z.T. Daniels are the DeKalb program’s first participants to get solar units installed, on their Druid Hills home’s roof. They said they hope to save money over the long run and do their bit to help the environment.

“Besides benefiting us individually, it benefits the earth,” said Brogan, a retired biostatistics professor at Emory University.

They hope their 6 kilowatt system, installed in November, will pay for itself in about 8 years — shorter than the typical 12-year break-even period for residential customers — because they’ve already made substantial energy-saving investments, including a geothermal heating and cooling system and energy-efficient windows, that will leave them with surplus power.

“We’re sort of frugal electricity users anyway,” said Brogan.

“I hope to add a battery backup eventually,” said Daniels, a retired manager at AT&T, that will allow them to store surplus solar power generated during the day for use at night, on cloudy days, or during power outages.

Shrinking impact

Turner, the Decatur funeral home operator, said she’s also motivated by a chance to cut her business’s power bills and shrink her impact on the environment.

“I’m always interested in saving money and I am also interested in saving the earth,” said Turner.

She and her sister, co-owner of A.S. Turner & Sons, signed up for a $50,000 solar installation that will produce about 23.8 kilowatts, enough to trim about 6 percent off their $5,500-per-month power bill.

They also expect to reap about $14,000 in savings from a 30 percent federal tax break on renewable energy projects.

They had hoped to do a project three times larger but discovered they will need to upgrade part of the building’s roof first.

Even though the Decatur funeral home is the only commercial customer that has signed a contract so far, J.P. Sartori, Hannah Solar’s vice president of corporate development, expects more big customers to sign up. They could include the DeKalb County government, Agnes Scott College and a number of churches in the county, he said. Atlanta-based Hannah Solar is the coalition’s contractor for doing commercial solar installations.

“The pipeline looks good,” said Sartori. “It’s always a much longer tail for commercial (projects).”

He said he’s “very confident” the company will sign up at least 400 kilowatts of commercial projects before the campaign ends.