The Solar City
The city’s program helping homeowners install solar panels is paying off in Riverwest and Bay View.
When the city officials decided to launch their Milwaukee Shines program to install solar panels, they selected Riverwest as the pilot neighborhood. Why? City Environmental Sustainability Director Matt Howard says it just seemed like the right fit: “Riverwest has a very strong neighborhood association and they are generally known for having strong environmental ethics.”
Milwaukee Shines, the increasingly successful solar energy program led by Howard’s office, was actually founded in 2008, the same year in which the U.S. Department of Energy named Milwaukee one of 25 Solar American Cities. Milwaukee Shines has been working to facilitate solar installations citywide ever since. “We’re always looking for new ways to assist businesses and residences to adopt renewable energy sources,” Howard says.
Their main course of action, however, has been through their flagship group buy program, which Howard jokingly calls “the Costco method”, a buying-in-bulk approach to solar installation that focuses not on a single home, but on a neighborhood. Group buying streamlines the whole process and makes solar panel installation, which can be a complicated, expensive endeavor, as easy and affordable as possible. “Group purchasing just takes a little stress off of residences not only on the upfront cost of investment, but also with acquiring some of the know-how,” Howard notes.
The process is remarkably simple. Amy Heart, the Solar Program Manager with Milwaukee Shines, says the first step is information based. For the Riverwest program, Milwaukee Shines teamed up with the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance to help handle the marketing and educational facets of the effort. “We held nine, hour-long solar info sessions over about two to three months and ended up reaching about 250 people. We basically created a customer pipeline to get people informed and get installers to homes as easily as possible,” Heart says.
These info sessions involved getting interested parties familiarized with installers, how solar technology works, the obvious benefits of said technologies, and the upfront cost of installation.The latter was subsidized by a flexible, low interest loan plan in partnership with Summit Credit Union. Many of the interested residents that came to info sessions already had a certain level of savvy regarding solar technologies, which validated Howard’s idea that Riverwest was the right neighborhood to begin the program.
Solar Riverwest, the first of Milwaukee Shines neighborhood-based group buys, was completed last fall with a total of 17 homes clocking in at 53 kW of juice. These numbers were well above expectation, making it a huge success overall.
One of these residents was Steve Jerbi, the pastor at All Peoples Church in Riverwest. He had solar panels installed on his home on North Booth Street during the Solar Riverwest campaign. “It was really only through Milwaukee Shines that this became a reality for us,” he says. “And it was great because with the group buy program I save more money the more my neighbors invest.” Jerbi now is now the happy owner of a 2 kilowatt system which he says provides one third to one half of his family’s energy use.
Solar Bay View was the next big project for Milwaukee Shines. Howard and company were hoping for 20 homes and 50 kW.
Well, the sign-up results are in: 39 homeowners are installing solar; the total kilowatts on line will tally up to 148, and the average size of a system install is 3.8 kW.
Heart is thrilled: “We are so happy to have far surpassed our goals. By topping 100 kW of solar, homeowners receive an even bigger bulk discount from the installer.”
The selected installer for Solar Bay View is Arch Electric; Heart says that Milwaukee Shines also worked closely with the Milwaukee Renewable Energy Association and the Bay View Neighborhood Association to achieve such a level of success.
“It’s programs like this that are helping home and business owners discover just how affordable solar energy can be,” she says. “Milwaukee is discovering that solar is a real, viable solution to reduce energy bills while generating clean energy and cutting reliance on dirty power plants.”
After the pioneering success in Riverwest and the incredible returns in Bay View, Milwaukee Shines is encourage to continue the program — in neighborhoods yet to be named.