The St. Johns County Solar Cooperative launched in front of the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine Aug. 8 to help organizations and homeowners purchase solar panels at a cheaper price.
Florida Solar United Neighborhoods (FL SUN) partnered with Compassionate St. Augustine to start the cooperative, which will group residents together and allow them to sign contracts with pre-approved solar panel distributors. FL SUN, a project of Community Power Network that helps Floridians organize solar co-ops, will facilitate negotiations and the heavy lifting involved with contracts, pricing and installation.
"By Florida Sun facilitating the process, we hold the hands of the homeowners from their interest through them picking an installer,” said Angela DeMonbreun, director of Florida Solar United Neighborhoods. “We, on the consumer side with consumer education, really can speak on their behalf to the contractor. We make sure the contractor is abiding by the agreement that they have and the contract that they signed with co-op members."
The process begins when solar co-op members provide their criteria during the sign-up process to various pre-screened installers through FL SUN. After receiving a response, the organization will help co-op members sort through the information while remaining neutral in the process. FL SUN will then train the chosen installer on how to work with a cooperative and how to interact with its members before the solar distributor assesses the project.
According to DeMonbreun, FL SUN will help homeowners understand solar terminology and their actual savings.
“We come into a community and host solar information sessions and we take that intimidation out of the process by providing basic solar technology terminology,” she said. “We talk about the process; we talk about the economics of going solar. We'll help a homeowner review their proposal and define these terms, giving them as much information as we can give them so they can make the best decision on their own.”
DeMonbreun added that FL SUN’s goal is to empower co-op members to “make the best-informed decision moving forward."
The FL SUN director said the cooperative’s launch on Aug. 8 was a successful event with “great turnout” and media coverage. The theme of the press conference, which featured historical re-enactors, was “making history.”
Warren Clarke, a lead volunteer and co-founder of the St. Johns Solar Cooperative, asserted that the launch event will serve as a catalyst for the transition to clean energy.
"This is going to be a nice start but it’s not going to be a huge start on the transition from dirty and dangerous fossil fuels to clean energy,” he said. “But it’s probably going to be a kickstarter for it."
Clarke suggested that a series of solar installations in St. Johns County could generate more cooperatives in the future.
"We'll have solar panels in a lot of neighborhoods and neighbors are going to talk to neighbors and this may not be the only solar cooperative we do in St. Johns County,” he said. “There may be a number more because more neighbors are going to want to do it."
Additionally, Clarke revealed that he wanted to install solar panels on his roof six months ago, but the process was daunting.
“We got bids from three different contractors and the bids were very different and the equipment was very different and we couldn’t really assess completely which we thought would be the best company to go with,” explained Clarke. “So, we put it off.”
That is, until he and his wife Pam saw signs for a cooperative in St. Petersburg that inspired him to start one in St. Johns County. Clarke brought the idea to Caren Goldman, the executive director of Compassionate St. Augustine, and put the plan in motion.
“We said, ‘Let's have this be the first thing we do as a new initiative of Compassionate St. Augustine, an environmental rights initiative,’” Clarke recanted. “So that's how it got started and that's what led us into it.”
He contended that vetting installers as a group and working together with other clean energy advocates will help cooperative members know they’re going to get “the best option” using “a lot more wisdom than just doing it individually.”
The co-op will drive the price down markedly, Clarke said, because it will cut the price of the installer; they won’t have to spend as much money on installations and they can buy in bulk quantity.
Clarke, a retired pastor, emphasized the significance of the cooperative and its potential impact on future generations. Citing the “golden rule,” he said it is the responsibility of the current generation to treat young people the way they would want to be treated by cutting down on fossil fuels that are “dangerous to their thriving in the future.”
The cooperative will host two more information sessions: one at the Village Church at World Golf Village on Sept. 13 and another at the Palm Valley Community Center in Ponte Vedra Beach Oct. 10.