California Condo Solar – Think Global, Act Local

California Solar News – Community leaders come in all sizes but their contribution is alway big. Think global and act local never rang truer when a amazing woman decided to take her condo association solar. Rosana Francescato is our new solar hero and our many thank go out for her forward thinking and courage.

The Energy Collective
Condoizing Solar
By Rosana Francescato

As I stood on the roof of our condo complex on a sunny day, I could see the roofs of several blocks to the north and east. We live in one of the sunnier areas in San Francisco California, so perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me to see four roofs with solar panels on one block, three on another, and three on the third. But San Francisco is unusual this way; according to the representative from a solar company who stood with me on the roof, more people in San Francisco choose solar than in many other cities.

Why isn’t solar more widespread? For many, it’s just not affordable; for others, it’s not worth it. A friend living in a small house in Berkeley tells me her total monthly PG&E bill is under $20, so she wouldn’t be able to realize any savings or even break even in the foreseeable future. But for anyone with an electric bill of a certain size (roughly about $75 a month or more), solar is becoming more attractive. Federal, state, and city incentives can cut installation costs by a third in San Francisco, and most systems pay for themselves and start saving money for their owners long before the 25 years they’re generally guaranteed to last. (The systems are expected to to outlive that guarantee, and most last quite a bit longer even if they start to lose a bit of efficiency.) This solar power calculator can give a quick general idea of how much you might save.

So I started a solar Committee, and I began looking into getting solar panels installed. We have three large buildings with plenty of roof area, though it’s probably not enough for both the individual units and the common electricity a challenge for condos of a certain height. But we spend about $1500 a month on the common electricity, so even if we concentrate on that, depending on the system, we could save an estimated $500 – $1000 a month over 25 years, that’s $150,000 – $450,000 total.

I had representatives from four solar companies assess our site, and they all confirmed that we have enough roof space for a system that would provide energy for the common electricity. Three of the companies submitted preliminary proposals for systems that would cost between $74,000 and $450,000, before incentives and rebates.

Our main challenge would be financing. Since our HOA is a nonprofit, we don’t qualify for some tax incentives. The upfront costs are too high for our 4-year-old complex, which doesn’t have large reserves built up yet, so we looked into ways to make it affordable.

As part of my research, I attended a “solar mixer” hosted by One Block Off the Grid, a community-based program that helps people buy solar panels. T-shirts, snacks and solar were the topic of discussion. By negotiating group discounts, they lower costs and perhaps even more valuable is their help in sorting out all the confusing details that homeowners face when they attempt to buy a solar system.

The mixer was intended to share information with people interested in going solar. In addition to representatives from 1 Block and the local solar installer they work with, there were local residents who had already installed solar panels in their San Francisco homes. I was grateful for the opportunity to talk to people with experience installing solar systems, and it’s inspiring to see this kind of work being done. One block has facilitated installations all over the country. And the 1 Block website contains all kinds of useful information from an interactive tool that lets you check if solar would work on your house to general information on how solar works to a video showing how solar panels add value to your property.

In spite of all this information, I still had a fair amount of research ahead of me. It seems that most installations are being done on buildings with a single owner, and that’s what the one block website focuses on. Information on installing systems for condo complexes is sparse. Our challenge was determining both how to pay for the system and what incentives we’d be eligible to receive; the various options available are great, and they also make this a complex project (no pun intended).

Clearly, getting a solar system for our residential condo complex would be a long process. We still needed to determine which incentives we qualify for, as a condo, and how we would finance the system. For a while, we thought our answer could be a program sponsored by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, GreenFinanceSF. They were providing a way to finance sustainable building improvements with 20-year loans that are paid back as part of property taxes, which are tax-deductible. That makes payments affordable: often the payment is less than the amount saved by the solar system.

The Mayor’s Office had not yet applied this program to condominiums, so they were eager to work with us to help encourage others to follow suit. But a recent development put a wrinkle in this plan: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the lenders they work with said that they will not support loans under the GreenFinanceSF or PACE programs. Because of that, GreenFinanceSF and many similar programs have been suspended. The Mayor’s Office and other local governments around the country are working with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to encourage them to reconsider their position. In the meantime, we were faced with more waiting.

While waiting, we had a lot to work out. Even if the GreenFinanceSF program was resumed and we adopted it, we couldn’t force all residents to opt in. So the HOA board researched our options. Are we allowed to lower HOA dues for those who do opt in and raise them for those who don’t? That would be necessary for this program to be financially feasible. The good thing was that this would cover more than solar panels; we’re also looking into electric-car plug-ins, tankless water heaters, LED lights, and energy-efficient windows. However, our HOA board finally decided it would be too complicated legally to implement this program.

So now we’re looking at leasing the panels; that could allow us to get the system installed, though it won’t give us the advantage of ownership and increased property values. A lease-to-own option would be even more attractive. I’m waiting now to hear about leasing options from a couple companies; many don’t work with condos or don’t lease solar systems, so that’s narrowed down our list of potential vendors.

This process has made me wonder about the many condos around our country. Though I know a few condos exist with solar systems, they’re rare, and it seems that we’re pioneers in this area. I’m hoping that I’ll learn enough through this process to share some information with others. I welcome any insights or stories about others’ experiences condoizing solar.