Small business owner Fran Toler on joining Hyattsville Solar Co-op

By Corey Ramsden on July 11, 2014
“By being selected as an installer for a solar co-op, a new solar company can demonstrate and build capacity for larger project management.”
– Hyattsville Solar Co-op Member Fran Toler

Fran Toler understands the challenges of being a small business owner. She is one – a licensed provider of financial and investment advice. That’s why she appreciated the energy savings she could achieve by investing in solar panels for her home of 22 years in Mt. Rainier, MD. But when she first attempted to go solar several years ago, she encountered a number of hurdles and found that the cost was too high.

Fran was interested to learn that local Hyattsville and Mt. Rainier community members were working with the Community Power Network to start a neighborhood solar coop.

“I have been interested in solar energy for decades, but in the last 5-6 years, I felt like with the tax incentives, I should be able to make it work. Nonetheless, on several different occasions I contacted companies, solicited bids, and each time got stalled in the process. Sometimes it was getting financing sometimes it was just the complexity of the decision and not being sure I was making the right choices or choosing the right company. No one I knew was going solar yet and it involved a steep learning curve.”

So she was excited to join the Hyattsville/Mt. Rainier Solar Co-op, a group of more than 40 residents of the Hyattsville/Mt. Rainier area that are leveraging their collective buying power and save about 30% on total costs by going solar together. The group formed in the spring and in May issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) from local installers. Members of the group then formed a selection committee that met, reviewed the proposals and selected, MD based Sustainable Energy Systems to complete all of the group’s installations. Community Power Network provided technical assistance to the group as they reviewed the bids, but the selection was ultimately the decision of the co-op members.

Fran highlighted a number of advantages to the solar co-op model and support from CPN:

“One, I got to work with friendly helpful people who explained the technical aspects and guided me through the process, but weren’t trying to sell me anything. Two, I got to efficiently and painlessly compare complex bids from multiple companies. Three, I got an astonishingly fantastic price break, reducing the need for financing. I love getting a bargain!”

As a small business owner herself, Fran appreciates the important role the large scale of such solar co-ops can play in creating work and jobs for area solar installers:

“I understand how difficult it can be to build capacity and a great reputation. These bulk purchases should allow a smaller company who might be ready to take the next step into larger contracts work with a group that isn’t expecting the same level of efficiency and expertise that a government or corporate contract would.”

And she also understands the positive business impact that building a strong reputation with third party consumer advocacy groups such as CPN can have:

“[By being selected as an installer for a solar co-op, a new solar company] can demonstrate and build capacity for larger project management in a setting where they are not stepping too far out of their comfort zone working with individual homeowners. They can also, through great service, make 50+ new contacts in their community who can spread the word about how great [their company] is, and how easy it was to get solar.”

The Hyattsville/Mt. Rainier solar co-op has 40 members and counting, and has achieved more than a 30% discount off of standard prices for it’s members. The co-op was facilitated by Gina DeFerrari, a former colleague of Anya Schoolman’s at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which just provided a bulk purchase facilitated by CPN as a benefit to its employees and a means of reducing the organization’s carbon footprint.

“At a meeting [for the Hyattsville Historic Preservation Association] last fall, we were thinking of things people could do to improve their homes, like insulating our windows. And I thought, why don’t we do a bulk [solar] purchase like the one we just did at WWF?,” Gina noted.

The Hyattsville/Mt. Rainier solar co-op will be accepting new members through July 31st. In order to preserve the economy of scale that enables installers to provide such competitive pricing, it is only open to area residents. More information and a sign up form is available on the co-op’s website. Homeowners outside of the Hyattsville can also learn about starting a co-op in their area.