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Pallets of PV: Communities Purchase Solar and Drive Down Costs Together

Think of it like Costco or Sam's Club for purchasing solar photovolatics (PV). Some savvy folks in Oregon thought it would be a great idea to buy PV in bulk for their neighborhood to get a big volume discount and share the savings with neighbors.

So they created the Solarize campaign, which over the last three years has helped Portland add "[more than] 1.7 MW of distributed PV and [establish] a strong, steady solar installation economy." In fact, so successful was the Portland model that several other communities started their own Solarize campaigns, including Washington State; Massachusetts; Vermont; San Diego, California; and multi-city campaigns from One Block Off the Grid and GroupEnergy.

All of the great details, including how to set up your own program, are laid out in "The Solarize Guidebook: A Community Guide to Collective Purchasing of Residential PV Systems," released in May 2012. This roadmap is for state and local governments and community leaders wanting to create a program to buy PV in bulk. It describes how Solarize Portland executed its program, explains how other neighborhoods across the United States are building off their efforts, and describes the steps needed to have a successful campaign in six months or less. This report is an update to a previous version published in January 2011 and includes new info on lessons learned not only in Portland, but across the other 1,960 Solarize installations.

The key to Solarize's success is that it directly tackles three major market barriers: (1) high upfront cost, (2) complex solar purchasing options, and (3) customer inertia (i.e., it is easier to do nothing than do something). Some of the key success elements include: (1) competitive contractor selection led by the community, (2) community-led outreach and education, and (3) making it a limited time offer (so you have to act now!). And how well did the bulk purchasing work?  Solarize Portland drove solar market costs down by 30 percent - 35 percent as compared to before the program.

By offering system financing to participants, Solarize campaigns tap a larger market for PV. Different ways to provide financing include low/no-interest municipal loans, bank or credit union loans, solar leases, third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), or even utility loans. The right type of financing will depend on your local community, your partners, and how actively they want to be engaged.

And the best part about the guide? After each case study, it includes contact information for the folks on the ground, so communities can get answers to all of their questions.

So for anyone interested in buying PV in bulk — there is a clear way to do so, even if the warehouse or home improvement stores can't help you out today.

This article was originally published on NREL Renewable Energy Finance and was republished with permission.

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