A DC homeowner with solar panels. Photo from DC SUN.

Installing solar panels on your house can be an expensive and time-consuming process. By banding together to buy panels and working with local nonprofit DC Solar United Neighbors (DC SUN), entire DC neighborhoods have gone solar.

Ross Margulies was interested in installing solar panels on his Petworth rowhouse, but wasn’t sure where to start. He’d solicited a few bids from local installers, but was left feeling more confused than when he started.

That’s when he contacted DC Solar United Neighbors, which works to help consumers go solar in DC. Founded in 2007, DC SUN is a coalition of neighborhood solar cooperatives that work together to make solar more accessible and affordable in the District. The all-volunteer group isn’t affiliated with any specific installers. Their goal is to advocate for consumers as they go through the solarization process.

"Partnering with DC SUN was by far the best decision I made in my solar purchasing process,” said Margulies. “[They] encouraged and assisted me in organizing a group of more than 35 of my neighbors to go solar together, resulting in a huge discount on the price of solar installation.”

Founder Anya Schoolman started DC SUN in 2007 when her son Walter and his friend Diego wanted to install solar panels on their roofs. Anya looked into getting a system and discovered it was an expensive and complicated process.

She agreed to pursue the option only if Diego and Walter could get the whole neighborhood to go solar with them. Two weeks later, the pair had signed up 50 neighbors to participate in a group solar purchase, forming DC’s first neighborhood solar cooperative. Now going into its sixth year, DC SUN is made up of several neighborhood solar coops, has passed numerous pieces of solar legislation, and has helped hundreds of homeowners go solar.

Their most recent initiative has been to organize neighborhood solar bulk purchases across the city. The bulk purchases operate much like shopping at a food coop: neighbors get together and go solar as a group in order to get a discount.

DC SUN provides technical support, guides the participants through the process, and solicits bids on behalf of the group. The participants then form a selection committee and pick a single contractor to install systems on all of the homes in the group.

Each participant owns their own system and signs their own contract with the chosen installer. Each neighborhood group is slightly different in how they approach the issue. Some care more about price, while others care more about social issues.

Although some participants were wary about buying solar energy as a group instead of going on their own, many found there were lots of benefits to going solar with their neighbors. “We all benefitted from the group’s experience and knowledge as we reviewed bids and learned about solar,” said Ane Powers of Ward 1.

Participants also had the support of DC SUN, which had a lot of knowledge of DC’s solar market and knew what to look for when it came to finding a good contractor and evaluating bids.

Most importantly, though, the groups were able to get a significant discount on the cost of their systems. Many saw 25-35% savings in cost compared to bids they had gotten on their own, since installers knew that the participants were well informed customers that were very interested in solar.

That savings, combined with generous local and federal incentives and the falling price of solar panels, meant participants were seeing payback periods of two or three years for their systems. “I was shocked at how low the price of solar was, especially with the group discount,” said Ward 5 resident Bryan Szalwinski. “Right now, solar is a great investment for any DC resident with a sunny roof.”

Prices for solar have dropped precipitously in the last few years. For example, solar panels for a small rowhouse that might have cost $24,000 a few years ago will cost about $12,000 today before incentives, such as a federal tax credit and a DC Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) that covers almost two-thirds the cost of going solar.

Solar installers are also really excited about the project. “I was skeptical at first, but now I have seen how many informed and educated customers DC SUN is bringing into the market,” said Atta Kiarash of Petworth-based Solar Solutions LLC. “It is really exciting to see the program grow.”

Another unexpected benefit of going solar with your neighbors has been a greater sense of community. Capitol Hill resident Corey Ramsden said he’s enjoyed connecting with neighbors and sharing how he went solar. “Everyone I talk to about my experiences is very interested, many say they know at least one person who’s installed solar. Most express an interest in going solar themselves.”

Although the number of solar systems in DC continues to increase, Anya Schoolman says they’ll keep organizing neighborhood bulk purchases. There are three active groups in Ward 6, Ward 5 and Upper Northwest (covering both wards 3 and 4) that are open to anyone in those wards. If you’re interested in joining an existing neighborhood bulk purchase, or want to help organize your own, check out DC SUN’s website.