Nuçi’s Space sits just south of a landmark of the Athens music scene — the iconic R.E.M. steeple. But to the south is an unobstructed sky, making the space’s sunny day real estate ideal for solar panel installation.
In 2016, Nuçi’s — a nonprofit working to aid those with mental health struggles, especially musicians — was the nonprofit beneficiary of the first Solarize Athens program. According to EnergySage solar marketplace, residential solar installations cost between $11,000 and $13,000 in Georgia, so the initial cost of installation is quite high. Solarize Athens, a public-private campaign, matched the funds Nuçi’s raised, allowing the nonprofit to purchase a solar panel system.
Solarize campaigns group buyers of solar panel systems together to lower costs. After the first Solarize Athens campaign in 2016 that installed 68 new systems, the campaign is being redone as “Solarize Athens 2.0” for 2019-2020.
“[We] really want Nuçi’s to be a leader in terms of environmental sustainability as a nonprofit,” said Jesse Houle, Nuçi’s operations manager. “We talk about being a space for health and mental health — having a healthy planet and healthy local ecosystem are a key part of that.”
Solarize Athens is a campaign organized by Solar Crowdsource, an organization that offers tools and services to help remove financial barriers to obtaining solar energy. Solar Crowdsource is a platform that works with non-profits to facilitate crowdfunding and Solarize campaigns.
The initial cost of solar installation is reduced through limited-time campaigns and bulk buying.
The energy output for a solar panel system is measured in kilowatts, and a system is measured by how many kilowatts it produces during the peak time of a sunny day, Donald Moreland, founder of Solar CrowdSource said.
The 2016 Solarize Athens Campaign installed more than 400 kW worth of solar panel systems, according to Solar Crowdsource.
Sunny happy power
In addition to other bulk purchasing, the price is reduced because the installations are done through a single contractor selected for the campaign. Due to the expectation of a large guaranteed purchase, contractors offer an initial discount, and the discount increases as more participants sign up. Alternative Energy Southeast, an Athens-based electrical contractor specializing in solar power, was chosen as the contractor for Solarize Athens 2.0.
“An installation with the selected contractor, AES, using the same materials and components outside this program would cost at least $3.25 per watt for a residential application,” Moreland said in an email. “If we hit our goal of 301kW+ total, then the residential price drops to $2.72/watt. Thus, nearly 20% savings.”
Solarize Athens 2.0 is also changing how discounts for residents are provided. Previously, the total capacity for residential and commercial purchases was separate, and commercial installations had individual rates, Moreland said. Now, commercial installations still have their own rates, but the kilowatts of commercial capacity and residential capacity are combined into a single total, further lowering rates for residential participants.
District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link participated in the 2016 Solarize program as a resident, installing a solar panel system on her home. She said she’s glad to see the return of Solarize to Athens, especially with the new rates.
“I think the lower price on the front end is going to lure people in right away,” Link said.
So far, Solarize Athens 2.0 has 206 committed participants, according to the Solar CrowdSource website. That would equal an overall capacity of approximately 204 kW, which puts the campaign nearly two-thirds of the way to its 301kW capacity goal. Residents and businesses must apply for Solarize Athens 2.0 by Feb. 28, 2020.
Athens residents and businesses are not on their own in wanting to switch to renewable energy, but the city is unique within the state as the first area in Georgia to have a second community solar campaign, Moreland said.
Among the new non-residential participants is the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, which approved a May 21 resolution to rely completely on renewable energy made for or on ACCUG properties by 2035. ACCUG will be adding solar installations to Fire Station No. 2 and Cooperative Extension facilities, according to the ACC Sustainability Office.
Among the benefits of the city purchasing solar panel systems through Solarize Athens 2.0 is that it makes installation cheaper for residents, Moreland said.
“Athens-Clarke has contributed two projects totaling 63kW,” Moreland said. “When we apply that capacity toward the residential tiered-pricing schedule, we leapfrog an entire tier. Thus, the Athens-Clarke projects help its residential [participants] save on the cost of solar.”
Even brighter days ahead
Link said a second Solarize campaign and the Athens-Clarke County government’s involvement in the campaign are indicative of a trend toward renewable energy in Athens.
“We have a new commission and a new mayor who are fully committed to renewable energy and environmental concerns,” Link said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for that partnership and that program.”
Even as Solarize 2.0 makes solar panel systems more accessible for buyers, Link hopes ACC can do more to make systems available to the entire community, not just those who are likely already interested in purchasing solar.
“I’m really hoping we can invest some of that in public housing,” Link said, referencing the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax 2020 project to allocate more than $15 million to renewable energy. “I’m hoping we can help make these folks lives more affordable by offering them solar power as well … That’s where the economic justice comes in. The cost of energy is only going up.”
The SPLOST 2020 project is a broad plan to fund “subprojects” to make ACC government facilities powered by renewable and sustainable energy.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 701 solar systems had been installed through the 2016 Solarize Athens campaign. The correct number is 68, 701 people had signed up for a free solar evaluation. The Red & Black regrets this error, and it has since been fixed.