Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh backs scaled-back solar program after complaints

Alex Mason, front, and Michael Reese install solar panels at a 1 Megawatt solar farm being built by Strata Solar, LLC, in Chatham County, NC, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012.
Alex Mason, front, and Michael Reese install solar panels at a 1 Megawatt solar farm being built by Strata Solar, LLC, in Chatham County, NC, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. 2012 N&O FILE PHOTO

At the urging of city leaders, the N.C. Solar Center won’t move forward with a program intended to give homeowners a better deal on solar panels.

Instead, the center agreed Tuesday to replace Solarize Raleigh with an educational campaign dubbed “Solarize Light” that doesn’t favor a particular solar firm. Local solar installers had complained that the Solarize Raleigh effort would create unfair competition by bringing together homeowners to get a bulk rate on solar panel installation – from a single contractor.

“This is not how business runs,” said Jason Epstein of Baker Renewable Energy, pointing out that no one would propose a similar model for plumbing or electrical installers. “This is a feel-good program.”

Solar Center director Steve Kalland said Solarize Raleigh was intended to increase interest in residential solar panels and make it more affordable. Multiple companies, he added, could create a joint bid for the contract. “It’s not designed to be an ongoing activity,” he said. “It’s a limited time offer.”

But some of the solar installers at Tuesday’s council committee meeting said Kalland’s projected consumer savings was based on inflated rates. They noted that the cost of a home solar installation has dropped dramatically. “It is still expensive, but we can make the financials work,” said Dan Lezama of Sun Dollar Energy. “The big savings that is promised under these programs is a lie. It’s a joke.”

Council members agreed with the installers and withdrew their earlier support for Solarize Raleigh. “I really do appreciate the consumer benefits, but I think people in the solar industry make a hard enough time earning a living as it is,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said.

Baldwin and other council members voiced support for the “Solarize Light” alternative floated by Kalland. The alternative would keep the Solar Center from negotiating with installers. Instead, the nonprofit affiliated with N.C. State University would work to educate homeowners about their solar options and provide a comprehensive list of installers.

“The downside is it will dramatically reduce the value to consumers in terms of soft cost reductions” such as gathering permits for multiple projects, he said. “I don’t think the economic benefit is as great at the original Solarize program.”

The Solar Center will also lose the $15,000 in federal grant money for Solarize, and the nonprofit will need to find another way to cover any costs. “Our funder is not interested in a Solarize Light model,” Kalland said.

Installers say they’re happy with a scaled-back program focused on education. “That’s really what the customers want and need,” Lezama said. “I think we can really work together here versus what’s been going on.”

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