Ann Arbor Solar Club explains mission to install residential panels

Friday, August 11, 2017 - 12:21am

On Thursday night, about 30 Washtenaw County residents gathered at the Ann Arbor District Library to learn about the Ann Arbor Solar Club — a program launched by the city to help streamline the installation of solar panels.

The event was hosted by the Ann Arbor Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. The CCL is a national organization, with hundreds of chapters; its mission is to encourage individuals to implement environment-friendly practices and fight climate change. According to Ginny Rogers, group leader of the Ann Arbor chapter, the group’s specific goal is to advocate for legislation to “put a price on carbon.” The group does work to influence federal legislators to support such proposals and also endorses renewable energy sources.

Rogers explained the city’s plan to streamline the installation of residential solar panels is meant to simplify the process for residents.  

“We are hosting this informational event today to get citizens to both know about the city’s Climate Action Plan and what residents can do to help with that plan by getting…solar installed,” she said.

The Climate Action Plan, passed by City Council in 2012, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it consists of 84 actions that can be taken to do so. The Ann Arbor Climate Partnership — a group of organizations and community members interested in learning and engaging around climate action — was created to monitor CAP goals.

Nicole Berg, one of the evening’s presenters, is on the Community Engagement Team of A2CP and discussed CAP. She also manages the University of Michigan’s Planet Blue Ambassador Program, which encourages students, faculty and staff at the University to promote sustainability efforts at the University.

Berg said climate change has impacted the local area with the effects of increased flooding and extreme heat.

“It really affects our community and well-being, as a community, both the changes — so we have to mitigate and adapt,” she said.

Berg explained there are greenhouse gas reduction goals for Ann Arbor; the city planned to reduce such gas emissions by 8 percent by 2015 and by 25 percent by 2025. She said the city just about reached their 2015 goals by a combination of local efforts and changes with the state. She said the city has a path to reach its 2025 goals, but for the 2050 goals, there will need to be a combination of effort and new technologies and policies on a larger scale.

Berg said most greenhouse gasses in the city are the result of energy and buildings, with smaller amounts from transportation and resource management such as food production, landfill and recycling. These areas, she said, should be targeted.

Reducing emissions could save the city millions of dollars and also improve health.

“Especially with an aging population in Ann Arbor,” she said. “The effects of climate change are going to affect vulnerable populations more, so we think heat effects. You get children with asthma and hotter days cause more ozone action days, which aggravates asthma and other respiratory diseases …”

Berg said it is important to confront such problems on the local level.

“A lot of people think that local communities can’t make a difference but it has to start with us,” she said. “Federal government is — we’ll say — moving slowly at this time. But we’re not the only ones in this space. There’s a lot of other local communities taking action on climate change. It’s not unique to Ann Arbor. Hopefully, we can be — and we have been — a leader in this space.”

Berg noted Ann Arbor was one of the first cities to develop a climate action plan in 2012, though the city became a leader even prior to that. Since the 1970s, Ann Arbor has paved the way through weatherization programs, energy efficiency, green building standards and LED lighting.

The city has utilized Property Assessed Clean Energy funding for commercial buildings to improve energy efficiency, while the a2energy initiative provides tips for improving energy efficiency. Berg said the community also passed a transit expansion plan, which expanded the AATA services by 43 percent; it has also funded climate adaptation programs.   

A progress report on the city’s website shows how far the city has come; so far eight of the 84 action steps are underway.

Berg said the next step is talking to City Council members.

“It leaves lots of opportunities,” Berg said. “What needs to happen now — and the committees I’ve worked on and talked to — it’s really talking to Ann Arbor City Council and taking a look at our Climate Action Plan (and asking), ‘how are we going to fund this? What are we going to focus on? How are we going to move forward?’ They really need to hear from Ann Arbor residents.”

Berg also encouraged attendees to join A2CP.

“There’s ways to get involved,” she said. “One of my favorite things that I always tell students is, ‘Yes, take action.’ One thing with sustainability is no one can be perfect, which I think is quite a relief that there’s not that pressure by virtue of being human. But, everybody can do something.”

John Mirsky, the event’s second presenter, is an Ann Arbor energy commissioner, an environmental commissioner and now volunteers as the Executive Policy Advisor for Sustainability in the Office of the Administrator. He works to advance sustainability activities in Ann Arbor.

Mirsky explained how attendees can support renewable energy initiatives in their community by installing solar panels in their houses, using the A2 Solar Club’s new process.

The A2 Solar Club is an effort between the city, the Clean Energy Coalition — an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that serves as the administrator of the process — and Geostellar, an online solar energy platform that aims to reduce the cost of solar energy and simplify its implementation. Geostellar handles the customer support aspect of the process, working with local installers.

Mirsky said in order for the city to reach its 2025 emission reduction goal, 500 residential systems each year would need to convert to solar energy; in recent years, approximately only 25 have been converting.

“There is a lot to be criticized about what the city is doing, but also, we, as residents, need to do a lot more with our energy efficiency, and also with solar,” he said.

As a result of the A2 Solar Club, Mirsky said the city is outpacing last year in terms of reducing emissions.

“We have 20 installations just through this program, there’s other installations being done through other installers, so we’re a little bit better than that, but we’re far away from where we need to be and that’s the great thing of an event like this — that we can get the word out there,” he said.

Mirsky noted pricing is a big part of solar paneling, but the price has dropped significantly in the last ten years, and the A2 Solar Club has worked to provide the most optimal price.

“Since every installation is unique, there are potential cost adders or cost reductions,” he said. “First of all, the standard panel is a pretty good panel … But there are some cheaper panels, so if you’d like to go with a cheaper panel, some people don’t like the aesthetics of them, you can save. Then there’s other things like (the) roof, what’s on the roof, what’s the height of the roof, what’s the slope of the roof, that can impact the price … Those kinds of things.”

In order for a resident to begin their transition to solar energy, Mirsky explained, they must go on the Geostellar website for Ann Arbor and type in their address to start the generation of a profile for their building; residents then identify their house on a map and identify themselves as the property owner. They are advised to provide their utility bill to the platform, explore financing options and then wait to be contacted by Geostellar. Mirsky said residents will then be given an idea of cost, and savings, based on the options they choose; they can also see the projected costs over the course of the next 30 years; the typical life of a panel is well over 30 years, according to Mirsky.

After generating a profile, if residents wish to proceed, a local installer from Geostellar will be sent to examine their property; they can then arrange financing on their own or through Geostellar, and so begins the installation process.

Among the attendees was Nancy Ogilvie, a member of the Ann Arbor chapter of Elders Climate Action — a national campaign devoted to renewable energy. She is part of the same team in the CAP program — the Community Engagement Team — as Berg.

“John (Mirsky) made reference to the fact that the city could be doing a lot more,” she said. “They made the effort to create a really aggressive, really good climate action plan, and then for a variety of reasons haven’t provided the funding that’s really needed to implement it,” she said.

Ogilvie highlighted importance of A2CP. She said she wants to be able to take the information she learns about climate action and share it with the community.

“The Climate Action Partnership team that I’m part of is Community Engagement and that’s certainly a lot of what Elder’s Climate Action is about,” she said. “So I want to be able to talk up the program and let people know that it's available. For homeowners I think it’s great and I really want to — as much as I complain about the city not having done much funding — support and advocate for the programs that they are doing.”