By Juliet Martinez
“I’d like to welcome you all to my solar powered home!”
The spring sunshine was already powering Terri Fuller’s Glen Hazel home when neighbors, community groups and media gathered there on March 30 to celebrate Allegheny County’s first free solar installation.
Photos by Juliet Martinez
Ms. Fuller said she wanted to go solar for many years, but the price was too high. She heard the price of solar panels was dropping, but it was still too expensive for her and almost anyone else in her neighborhood.
“I saw solar panels appearing on houses around the city, but hardly any in my neighborhood,” she said.
But at Hazelwood Initiative’s Earth Day celebration in 2022, she found out she could receive free solar panels through a crowdfunded effort associated with the Solar United Neighbors solar co-op. She signed up.
“Now I’m making my own energy. Woohoo!” she cheered.
A cooperative approach to solar power
The 2022 Allegheny County Solar United Neighbors solar co-op grew to be larger than any other in Pennsylvania, according to the organization. It closed to new members earlier than planned because the installer the co-op selected was at capacity.
Along with partners Hazelwood Initiative, the Congress of Neighboring Communities, City of Bridges Community Land Trust, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, and 350 Pittsburgh, the co-op crowdfunded $30,000 for free solar installations for seven Hazelwood homeowners earning less than 80% of the area median income. Local foundations contributed the remaining funds for the rooftop solar arrays.
Tiffany Taulton, director of outreach and sustainability at Hazelwood Initiative, and Henry McKay, heartland regional director of Solar United Neighbors hatched the plan. Ms. Taulton said she and Mr. McKay had looked for a way to bring solar energy to Greater Hazelwood since late 2020.
“Hazelwood Green had become a selling point for the country, being the largest slanted solar array in the country,” Ms. Taulton said at the ribbon-cutting. “Why not have that in the community itself? Why not have the people who have lived here forever also be a part of this new solar revolution, this green energy that’s coming to the city?”
Joining a solar co-op is free and gives members the power to collectively select an installer through a competitive bidding process. Members do not have to buy a solar installation at all, nor do they have to go through the installer the co-op chooses. But those who do buy through the chosen installer essentially get bulk pricing rather than retail.
Mr. McKay said 46 households went solar through last year’s co-op. They learned about solar energy and had access to a group rate from the competitively selected solar installer, Carnegie-based EIS.
For homeowners who missed their chance last year, the countywide solar co-op opened again for 2023 in early April. This year, Solar United Neighbors is partnering with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to crowdfund more free solar installations for homeowners earning at most 80% of the area median income.
Solar incentives only go so far
At the ribbon-cutting, District 5 Councilperson Barb Warwick praised the community groups for making solar accessible and highlighted the importance of projects that reduce both carbon emissions and the cost of living for lower- and moderate-income families and households.
“With the Inflation Reduction Act, there's lots of new money out there for projects like this, and a lot of that money, again, is geared toward low- and moderate-income families,” Warwick said.
“I'm really excited to work together with county officials, state officials, also federal officials, to make sure that that money comes here to this region,” she added.
The Inflation Reduction Act passed last August, creating tax breaks to encourage homeowners to buy and install rooftop solar panels. Those who do so will get a 30% reduction in on their taxes for the year they went solar, starting in 2022.
The 30% tax credit rolls over to the next tax year if the homeowner cannot take advantage of the whole credit in one year.
But Mr. McKay said people with lower incomes may have too little tax liability to find the offset useful.
“So that’s why we hope that this solar installation is not the end, but the beginning of something much bigger,” he said.
Easier community solar
A proposal currently working its way through the Pennsylvania senate could address some of the limitations of the Inflation Reduction Act solar incentives.
The proposal would reduce red tape for community solar projects, in which people buy or lease part of a solar installation and receive a portion of the credit for the energy generated. This arrangement makes it easier for renters and those living in apartments or condominiums to lower their electric bill and participate in the solar economy.
Community solar participants may save 5% to 15% on their electricity bills, according to the website EnergySage.com, which conducted an independent analysis. But some community solar programs could raise members’ light bills, so interested households should examine the expected long-term savings before deciding whether to join.
As access to cheaper solar energy gradually expands, homeowners like Ms. Fuller are eager for others in their communities to reap its benefits.
“There are many more homeowners like me in Pittsburgh who want to go solar but need some financial help to make it possible,” Ms. Fuller said.
Learn more at www.solarunitedneighbors.org/co-ops/pennsylvania/allegheny-county-2023-solar-and-ev-charger-co-op.
Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.