Solar campaign reaches dozens of Allegheny County households

Living in one of the most meteorologically dreary areas of the country, Leslie Heilman was not convinced that installing solar panels would be a wise decision to power her 2,000-square-foot, two-story house in Point Breeze. 

Then, at a public meeting this spring hosted by the Solarize Allegheny campaign, she heard the one-liner that advocates have come to use as an illustration to dispel that notion: The world’s leading solar producer is Germany, which gets about as much sunlight as Alaska. 

As it turned out, she had an ideally oriented roof. The panels could soak up sunlight, produce nearly 125 percent of her annual electric usage and help her pay back the costs of the installed system in eight years.

Ms. Heilman’s line of thinking about solar energy is exactly what Solarize Allegheny set out to foster when it launched this year.

Solarize, managed by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit marketing firm SmartPower and with funding from the Heinz Foundation, is designed to simplify the process for the owner of a home or small business to buy solar.

Its strategy includes targeting four communities during a 20-week period with a flood of solar education and information on pre-screened local installers. Advocates promote friendly competition among the neighborhoods in hopes that word-of-mouth will spread.

The goal, after five rounds of competition that began in February, is to double the amount of solar energy in Allegheny County by the end of 2016.

Solar power in Pennsylvania has long been dominated by the eastern parts of the state. There are just 221 solar generators in Allegheny County — 3 percent of the state total — registered with PJM Interconnection, the regional electric grid operator. This puts southwestern Pennsylvania behind eight counties, all in suburban Philadelphia, that have 55 percent of the registered solar systems statewide and 60 percent of the nameplate capacity.

Solarize’s first phase enlisted Moon, South Fayette, Point Breeze and a team that combined Millvale and Etna.

In those communities, the campaign has nurtured the sales of 11 residential solar installations and 72 building owners have received a price estimate for their projects, said Sharon Pillar, vice president of SmartPower. Another 153 are waiting to receive quotes.

So far, Point Breeze is in the lead with seven installations completed. 

Given time needed to build momentum, Ms. Pillar said, the numbers during the first phase were expected to be the lowest. 

“This is what we expected. It will be a slow start,” she said. 

Since its launch in February, campaign leaders have held events in casual public settings like bars and restaurants. Those interested in seeking a general price estimate could then access an online tool called EnergySage, which brings up a Google satellite image of any address and calculates solar pricing based on roof size and orientation, shading of the roof and neighborhood electricity rates. From there, prospective customers could request specific quotes from local installers. 

Ms. Heilman’s installation comprised 25 individual rooftop panels with a combined capacity of nearly 8 kilowatts. After receiving bids from a few installers, she picked Thornburg-based Scalo Solar Solutions. 

The entire system cost $24,000, but Ms. Heilman expects to pay $16,000 after the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar electric installations. That credit is set to expire at the end of 2016 — another impetus for the Solarize campaign.

“What’s nice about Solarize is it helps people sort of go through a process where they can resolve a lot of those challenges and get to a point where they are ready to purchase,” said Hal Saville, energy project consultant for Energy Independent Solutions, an installer based in Robinson.

“There’s a certain momentum,” he added, “when you go in intensely in a certain geographical area and a specific community of people and engage them all at once.”

Last month in Moon, Energy Independent Solutions was finishing one of Solarize’s largest and most visible installations yet. Workers were placing 100 panels into a series of ground-mounted racks placed about 300 feet from the house. The racks were constructed to a precise 30 degree angle for optimal performance, he noted. 

The installation spanned 125 feet in length and can generate more than 30,000 kilowatt-hours each year. The panels will convert sunlight to a direct electrical current, which must be converted into an alternating current by a device called an inverter placed underneath the panels. 

Mark and Janet Greathouse, the homeowners, said they didn’t know much about solar power before attending a Solarize meeting.  

“Like many other things, I think as people start to see installations, then it becomes something that has a reality to it, and they will look into it more. You need to start somewhere,” Mr. Greathouse said.

Beginning at the end of June, phase two will feature at least three communities: Squirrel Hill, Ross and a team combining Highland Park, Friendship and Morningside. 

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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