The H Street Solar Panel Installation Adventure

by Joe Marhamati

The author’s building.

Back in October, we ran a story on Georgetown Energy, the solar advocacy group at Georgetown University. This article spurred UrbanTurf’s Joe Marhamati to invite the student-run group out for a look at his roof. What resulted was a valuable learning experience about the benefits of solar energy and the potential roadblocks to producing your own watts.

In October, Georgetown Energy’s crew arrived at my one-bedroom condo near H Street to give me the lowdown on solar energy technologies. The team crunched all the numbers, including anticipated costs and payback periods, as well as what could be expected through the installation and interconnection with Pepco. Their estimates varied based on the different panel types and size of system, but were generally in line with what the contractors themselves would eventually provide. Following the visit, I contacted Clean Currents, which is a relatively young company serving the DC Metro area with certified solar installations.

Clean Currents provided additional details about the process, with quote sheets that included the total system costs minus federal and DC incentives, as well as the rebates available from Pepco in the form of renewable energy credits. The cost savings associated with solar panel installation have been widely reported, but it is no less amazing when you see the savings written down: the cost of a $30,000 system to fully power my 525 square-foot H Street one-bedroom condo at 400 kilowatt-hours of energy usage a month, came down to $8,000 after government incentives, and dropped to $2,500 with the Pepco RECs. Clean Currents works with a bank to provide an interest-free one-year loan that takes care of the total system cost while you wait for your incentives and rebates to come in.

In approximately three to four years I would have my investment paid back (via $2,500 savings on utilities), and a return on investment of nearly 13-20 percent over the lifetime of the panels (15-20 years). In other words, the $2,500 would net the equivalent of a 13-20 percent interest bearing savings account when taking the saved costs on electricity into consideration.

The section of the roof where the solar panels would be placed.

I was further excited when I learned how easy the process would be. With a $1,000 deposit, I would secure the $30,000 quote, and have an electrical engineer provide estimates on any extraneous electrical work and give a sense how the interconnection would happen. Within a few months, the panel installation would begin on the roof, and soon thereafter Pepco would provide bidirectional meters that roll backwards when you’re producing power and forward when you’re consuming it (though current law prohibits the power company from paying customers for producing more power than they use).

It was an exciting proposition, but I knew that I would need the approval of my homeowners association (HOA) to install the system, which would take nearly a quarter of the building’s roof space. After presenting the project, the HOA expressed concern due to the fact that the roof would likely need repair in the next few years. They were also concerned that putting panels on the roof might exclude other owners from doing their own solar installs in the future, which was valid given that much of the roof currently has satellite dishes and air conditioners covering it. Promises to provide enough power for the condo building’s common areas and $500 in savings over three years as well as assurance that the panels would be moved if roof work were needed were not enough to overcome these concerns. Solar contractors, including Clean Currents, will openly tell condo clients that HOAs are a difficult hurdle in moving forward with solar panel installation.

In several states, including California and Florida, it is illegal for HOAs to deny solar installs. An increasing number of states have pursued similar laws, and Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells’ office has considered pursuing the legislation in the District.

While it is disappointing that I will not be powering my unit with solar panels anytime soon, the process highlighted both the many benefits of solar power and the difficulty of presenting it to an HOA in a palatable way. Hopefully after the new roof is installed, I can give it another try.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/the_solar_panel_installation_adventure/2692


  1. JT said at 3:41 pm on Friday November 19, 2010:

    You asked the HOA last?  Sounds like it should be Step 1.  As far as a law not denying solar installs, I can’t imagine one or two owners taking over the roof of a condo building and denying everyone else.  Seems patently unfair since condo owners don’t own the roof or air rights.

  1. Colin Storm said at 3:58 pm on Friday November 19, 2010:

    Thanks for telling us about your journey Joe. HOA’s can be a tough hurdle for any number of issues. Therein lies their liability as well as their benefit.

  1. Astral said at 4:06 pm on Friday November 19, 2010:

    Interesting story. Do solar panels really take up that much room that other owners would not be able to install them on the roof if they wanted to?

  1. Joe Marhamati said at 5:17 pm on Friday November 19, 2010:

    Astral, for a 4kw system (enough for around 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, or around a $50-60 bill) it would have taken up about half to a third of the roof’s empty space, in part because of skylights and other systems already on the roof. Since there are four units in the building, it would be hard to accommodate four installations unless we decreased the size of the systems.

  1. austin said at 9:26 pm on Saturday November 20, 2010:

    So, why don’t you pitch the idea of a larger system on the roof to all the owners? As a single system could all the apartments pull from one installation. What would be the costs associated with a system with an intelligent distributor/meter (if such a thing exists)?

  1. Joe Marhamati said at 1:01 pm on Sunday November 21, 2010:

    Austin, I considered pitching a larger system to the HOA, but the issue is that we would have to each individually apply for separate systems, with separate applications for all the incentives discussed, as the incentives structures do not currently accommodate HOAs. Also, we would have to wire each individual system into our separate meters, there is no intelligent distributor. I thought the logistics would not be attractive to the HOA.

  1. Larry said at 10:59 am on Monday November 22, 2010:

    A conversation with your HOA should have been first on the list, not last. And I am surprised your HOA let non building residents and non association contractors on the roof at all. Serious liability issues.

    I am always surprised that people buy a condo, then have the gumption to complain about the fact that the HOA controls the builind afterwward.

    I would agree with the above. I would pitch the idea that the HOA install a system that would eliminate the monthly electric bill for the association. It would reduce the entire buildings condo fees and raise the property values accordingly for EVERY unit. I am sure it would go down smoother with the HOA.

    The roof doesn’t belong to an indiviual association member, it belongs to all of them.

  1. Joe Marhamati said at 11:57 am on Monday November 22, 2010:

    Larry, I actually pitched the system as you describe, whereby I would essentially gift two or more of the panels to the HOA to offset the electricity used for common areas, which would allow each unit to claim the solar resource. This was not enough to overcome their concern about the condition of the roof.

    The reason I discussed it with the HOA after talking to Georgetown Energy and contractors was partly out of curiosity and to learn more, partly for this story, but also so that I would go into the meeting informed. I would definitely not have been prepared to discuss the option with them if I had not done this due diligence first, and so I would recommend the same to others.

  1. Chris on Seaton said at 4:53 pm on Monday November 22, 2010:

    Great story.  I own my home in Bloomingdale and would love to install panels on my roof.  I didn’t know there were such great incentives.  My concern has always been the initial outlay of money for a project like the one you describe.  I was expecting $20-$30K of your own money needed.  Would be great to hear who you would suggest talking with or any sites where people can learn more about having a system like this installed.  Anything to keep our AC bill down in the summer. smile

  1. aj said at 5:14 pm on Monday November 22, 2010:

    I was just talking to a solar/roofing company that informed me that PPAs (power purchase agreements) have been developed with a new roof rolled into the project financing. this is how they are able to sell it to the schools and other clients that are interested. the PPA provider installs the roof and PV system, receives the rebates and incentives, and sells the power back to you at a rate lower than that of the electric utility (in this case Pepco). you might need to look at the whole building and not just your roof to make it viable to the PPA, but its an alternative way of having a solar installation AND a new roof.

  1. Linda Cummings said at 4:47 pm on Tuesday November 23, 2010:

    Joe, I am an attorney in California who represents HOAs and am very familiar with California’s Solar Rights Act.  The Act does not prohibit HOAs from prohibiting individual owners from installing PV panels on the common area roof.  But AJ is absolutely right on when he suggests a PPA (Power Purchase Agreement).  For the details of how a PPA could work for an HOA, see my blog post: http://msquire.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/solar-energy-for-community-associations-–-funding/
    If your association decides to pursue a PPA, I would love to hear from you about how it goes.

  1. Joe Marhamati said at 10:16 pm on Tuesday November 23, 2010:

    Linda, thanks for the info, that’s very informative. The information I gleaned on the California Solar Rights Act was from the California Office of Historic Preservation, which says that, “It does establish the legal right to a solar easement, defines which solar energy systems are covered by its provisions, and limits local governments from adopting ordinances that would unreasonably restrict the use of solar energy systems.” I took establishing the legal right to a solar easement to mean that HOAs could not restrict solar installs in most instances, unless there were extenuating circumstances. A similar law exists in Florida. I’d love to learn more about the nuances of the law though, and how it applies in difference instances, as well as how it has held up in court over time.

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