Housing Complex

Solar Coops Unite

Solar doohickey. (Darrow Montgomery)

Solar doohickey. (Darrow Montgomery)

The solar coops are mustering.

Last month, the 12 existing groups dedicated to helping each other install solar panels convened for a summit. They don't have a name yet, but they have a leader: Mt. Pleasant activist Anya Schoolman. And they have the other component of sophisticated organizing: Committees.

There's not much time to waste. The solar coops have a slate of priorities to advance solar power in the District, and the sooner they get pushed through, the faster panels can get put on roofs. Please forgive a bit of wonkery as I explain what they're after.

First: One of the biggest factors confining how fast solar energy can grow in the District is the fact that the solar "carve out" in the renewable portfolio standard–or the percentage of our energy Pepco is required to derive from sources like solar, wind, and biomass–is pitifully low. The overall RPS is 20 percent by 2020, but only 0.4 percent has to be solar. That's not going to motivate the notoriously stodgy utility to move very quickly on facilitating solar installations. Schoolman and Co. hope to increase it to between three and five percent, which she says would generate jobs faster than the current anemic pace.

Second: A lot of people in Washington live in big multi-unit buildings, where it's very difficult to get your very own solar panel. Accordingly, the coops are considering legislation to foster "solar gardens," or shared installations on the tops of large buildings that would lower energy bills for all residents. This is particularly important, Schoolman says, in Ward 8, where a substantial majority of people live in apartments.

That's where Akili West comes in. West, the president of his own sustainable energy services firm, founded the Ward 8 solar coop about three months ago, and will be working on the solar gardens legislation (Ward 8 is also home to the first District-based photovoltaic installer, WDC Solar). Right now, though, it's not all about solar. That, says West, is a more advanced step for those who have already weatherized their homes–a bigger problem east of the river than in the cozy, well-insulated neighborhoods in northwest. Plus, even with generous rebates, startup costs run around $8,000, which can still be a daunting up-front sum.

Without as many solar-ready homes, West is working on institutions. Richfood, a grocery store on 14th Street and Good Hope Road SE, has energy bills that run into the six figures annually–they're interested in installing solar panels. Carryout food shops are also a source of energy; West is planning ways for their extra cooking oil to be collected and used in peoples' cars.

The biggest low-hanging fruit, though, is recycling. Ward 8 has an abysmal recycling rate, due to a combination of inadequate awareness and logistical problems like stolen cans that take months to replace. West thinks he can double the recycling rate. He's working with Coca Cola and Kraft foods to put recycling centers at local schools, and wants to create financial incentives for turning in recyclables.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the interest has to be generated through financial means rather than, 'oh, this is good for the environment, why don't you do it,'" West says.

But there's also an education component. Ever heard of the slogan, "Don't Mess With Texas?" It's an anti-littering campaign. West wants something along the same lines for Ward 8.