Carrboro gets psyched to go solar

(L-R) Stew Miller, Pat Murphy, Tommy Cleveland and Bob Kingery answer questions for residents in attendance at Tuesday night’s information session.
(Staff photo by Ellen Werner) (L-R) Stew Miller, Pat Murphy, Tommy Cleveland and Bob Kingery answer questions for residents in attendance at Monday night’s information session.

Almost 12 years ago, Carrboro resident Randee Haven-O’Donnell had an idea: installing solar panels on the homes in her cul-de-sac.

Unfortunately for Haven-O’Donnell, the unfavorable orientation of the houses combined with the lack of suitable technology and cost-effective methods prevented her from pursuing this alternative energy option.

Solarize Energy Logo
Solarize Energy Logo

Haven-O’Donnell is a certified environmental educator, and she now serves on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen. She has always supported using renewable energy sources but knows that not everyone follows in her green carbon footprints.

“I have felt that we need to be gentle with our planet,” she said, “and we’ve been anything but, my entire life. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in my generation.”

But now, a little more than a decade later, a new initiative called Solarize Carrboro is working with local solar system installers to provide environmentally conscious homeowners like Haven-O’Donnell with an easy, affordable way to switch to solar power.

Rob Pinder, Solarize Carrboro’s project leader and executive director at NextClimate, a local nonprofit, said the idea for the initiative stemmed from a similar movement in Portland, Ore., in 2009.

Recognizing the success of the Portland initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy created a guidebook that other cities looking to emulate Portland could use.

Since then, in addition to states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, North Carolina has had a similar project completed in Asheville, and Solarize Durham’s deadline to sign up for a solar assessment is Tuesday, April 15.

Chatham County, Pinder said, also has a solar energy campaign in the works.

When Pinder read the guidebook in the summer of 2013, he decided this needed to happen in Carrboro.

Last October, he circulated a petition in Carrboro. Pinder said the town responded with enthusiasm and immediately thought the project had potential.

In December, Pinder and other community members reviewed the bids for the job from local solar system installers and eventually settled on a team consisting of Yes! Solar Solutions and Southern Energy Management, two family-owned businesses that specialize in installing solar systems in residential and small commercial properties.

The project launched in Carrboro on April 2 with an information session in the town hall, offering interested residents in the 27510 or 27516 ZIP codes a chance to learn about the costs involved, how the process works and the economic and environmental benefits that result from using solar energy in a home.

Pinder said the turnout for the first meeting was so impressive, he had to hold another meeting Monday evening.

The founders of the two solar system installation companies, a representative from the N.C. Solar Center, an employee from Admirals Bank and a member of the Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute gave short presentations and answered residents’ questions Monday.

At the start of the second panel discussion, more than 160 homeowners had already signed up to receive the free solar assessment, the first step in the process during which analysts determine whether or not a residence is conducive to solar panels.

Pinder said Solarize Carrboro’s goal is to install solar systems in 50 houses by the end of the year, so he is especially excited by the community’s initial response.

“If you just give people information, it’s like, ‘OK, that’s nice,’” said Pinder, who is trained as a climate scientist. “But if you give people a thing that they can do that is pretty easy — like sign up on a website — that can translate into really big action.”

After the deadline to sign up for the assessment on May 30, residents who are eligible for panel installation then review a proposal drawn up by the installation company. Homeowners must sign their contracts by the end of July to ensure the solar systems are set up during 2014.

If the installation company finds that a home’s roof angles or orientation are not compatible with solar panels or if a house is surrounded by trees that create too much shade, that residence cannot receive a solar system.

For those, like Pinder, who face this issue but still want to participate in an environmental initiative, involvement in other projects is encouraged.

Pinder said he wanted these meetings to help people realize that solar power is not just for “space stations” and “some billionaires out in California,” but a feasible, economical way to help the environment.

The technological advances in manufacturing solar equipment have substantially lowered the complexity and the cost of purchasing and installing solar panels, Pinder said, adding that the rising cost of electricity only further encourages those looking to make the switch to solar.

Solarize Carrboro also offers group discounts, which increase as the number of homes using solar energy increases, as well as further reduced installation and equipment costs.

In addition, those who sign up also receive substantial tax credits — a 30 percent federal solar tax credit and a 35 percent North Carolina solar tax credit — which expire in 2016 and 2015 respectively.

Lastly, one California study cited in Tuesday’s meeting by Tommy Cleveland from the N.C. Solar Center showed that solar panels increase the value of homes and decrease their time on the market.

The environmental benefits are extensive as well. According to an environmental impact study presented by Yes! Solar Solutions and Southern Energy Management, one year of using solar energy instead of fossil fuels saves the equivalent of 7,353 pounds of carbon dioxide, 4,370 pounds of coal burned and 7,243 car-miles not driven.

These benefits generated by Solarize Carrboro mesh well with the values of the town’s residents, who appreciate the exploration of possible alternative energy sources and the development of the local economy, Haven-O’Donnell said.

The initiative provides an opportunity for residents to go beyond the boundaries, such as technology and negative perceptions of solar power, that have limited their efforts in the past.

“Now it’s time to unshackle ourselves and move forward,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “We are highly motivated in Carrboro; we just need to have the mechanism that will work on a larger scale.”

Randy Dodd, the environmental planner for the town of Carrboro, said he sees the project as a win-win situation for participating homeowners in search of less harmful energy sources.

“The values are around concern for the current paradigm with energy use and wanting to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power and toward something that is much softer on the planet,” he said.

And the time for this, Pinder said, is now.

“The sooner we can start getting those emission reductions down, the better off we’ll be,” he said. “The problems with burning fossil fuels seem somewhat remote and abstract … but now we’re really starting to feel the effects of climate change.”

For more details on the process and information on how to sign up, visit www.solarizenc.org.

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Author of the article

Ellen is a writer-photographer for the Carrboro Commons and a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill.