Ensuring your co-op goes smoothly: Community Power Network lessons learned

By Ben Delman on October 9, 2016

 Solar co-ops allow groups of neighbors in a community to go solar together. Co-op members work together to learn about solar and select one installer.  This process helps co-op members save money because the installer is able to offer a group of customers a better price than it would to one individual one. This works the same way that buying a in bulk is less expensive on a per unit basis than just buying a single serving item.
In this way, solar co-ops engage people to take control of where their electricity comes from. They help build community around a shared goal that benefits participants. But they aren’t always successful. The reasons why vary.

“Every co-op is unique,” said Anya Schoolman Community Power Network Executive Director. “Things that work within one community won’t necessarily work in another. Co-op leaders need to adapt the co-op to their community in order to be successful.”

Some groups have a difficult time recruiting members. Others may not do a good job of educating and engaging their members in process. The group may end up selecting an installer that is not meeting the needs of the group. The good news is that these challenges can be overcome with proper program design and a good effort on the part of the co-op organizer.

A co-op can’t form without members. Getting people to join a co-op can be a hurdle. Before starting a co-op it is important to understand the area where you want your group to grow.

There are several factors you should consider. How many homeowners are in the area? What is the housing stock like? Is there a proliferation of tree cover? It is important to understand the barriers facing your community to going solar so that you can design a co-op program that overcomes them. The structure and goals of the co-op should reflect the needs of your community.

This member-centered design focus is particularly relevant to the outreach phase of the co-op. It will be important for you to think through the ways people in your community talk with each other. Are there local listservs? Is there a local paper that everyone reads? Different co-ops will grow in different ways. You will need to market the co-op in a way that reaches your potential audience. You will need to meet face-to-face and listen to one another. Values matter.

One of the best ways to ensure that your co-op is successful is to form a co-op steering committee to help guide outreach activities. By assembling a team of fellow co-op members, you’ll be better able to identify a variety of ways to reach out to people and make sure that there are enough hands to help with the efforts. Members will have their own social circles, experiences, and resources to contribute. It’s much, much easier than trying to do everything yourself.

“Co-ops are successful when co-op members feel a personal investment in them.” Schoolman said. “Co-op members should have an active and participatory role in the group. Not all members will be interested in this, but the ones that are can be the co-op’s best advocates and marketers.”

Understanding your co-op audience isn’t just important to building the group, but also to engaging with them once they join. One solar group developed an online portal where potential members could sign up. This online tool did make it easy for members to sign up. But, the group didn’t follow up this online interaction with off-line relationship building. Relationship building is critical to co-op success. Members want and need to feel like they are part of the group.

Going solar is a big financial decision for most co-op members. Being able to interact with other co-op members and the co-op sponsors gives them piece of mind that they are making the right decision. Community building is a key component of the education process that should be a standard part of a co-op practice. You should make resources readily available to co-op members.

One way to do so is through a welcome packet that contains what they will need to know about solar. A side benefit of this education process is that it can lessen members’ need to contact the co-op sponsor directly to get answers to their questions. This frees you up to engage more new members.

Building this educated community is also important because it can help the group deal with an unresponsive installer. Active co-ops, with members that are talking with each other, can sniff out when something is going wrong. Without this conversation, individuals are likely to assume the issue is unique to them.

For example, one group found the installer wasn’t ensuring that the solar systems the company installed were interconnected. Co-op members had panels on their roofs, but they weren’t producing electricity. This was realized when a few members looked at their energy bills and realized their monthly payments hadn’t gone down as they expected. Once co-op members realized there was a problem, they were able to alert their fellow members to the issue and point out what to look for. They were then able to work with another company to get the systems interconnected.

“Having a group listserv or Facebook group is a good way for people to share their experiences and issues,” Schoolman said.  This forum can also serve as a back-up warning system that something is going wrong.”

This is where having an open and transparent relationship with the group’s selected installer is critical. Sometimes, the customer, or in this case the co-op member isn’t always right. Routine calls with the selected installer will help you not only track the installer’s progress, but help them understand and find ways to work through issues co-op members may have.

Of course, the best way to solve the problem of an unresponsive installer is to have a thorough review process that empowers co-op members to make good a choice. This begins with your group’s Request for Proposals (RFP). Your group’s RFP should lay out in specific detail what your group wants to see from the installer it selects. This could range from the type and quality of materials to financing options. Here is an example of an RFP we use.

We’ve also created a draft response template for installers. This helps ensure that the bids we receive are apples-to-apples comparisons. This makes the decision-making process easier. It also helps the group identify potential red flags in proposals. These red flags include an extremely low bid that doesn’t take into account the true cost of installing, unrealistic timelines, and lack of installation experience.

It is also important to do due diligence on the installers that are bidding. There are a number of online review sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List. Also be sure to ask the installer to provide references of their own and check their licenses. Any hesitation they might have in doing so, or on the part of their reference could be a sign of the quality of the company’s work.

These steps and processes can help you ensure that co-op members are pleased they participated in the co-op. “When co-op members have a good experience, they stay excited about solar and want to help more people feel that same excitement,” Schoolman said.