Going Solar in the City

“There was almost nothing about it that was hard,” she said, adding that she’d recommend it to any homeowner in the city. “It’s cool that I don’t have to buy coal energy. I’m into the sustainability aspect of it.”

Kate Zmich holds up a photograph of the solar panels on the roof of her Fishtown home.

Earlier this month, Fishtown resident Kate Zmich was part of the first phase of Philadelphia residents to take part in Solarize Philly, which is the Philadelphia Energy Authority’s new solar energy initiative. The initiative aims to pool buyers together in an effort to obtain discounted solar panels through group purchasing.

“Initially the guys came over to look at my roof and make sure my room could sustain the panels without needing to get a replacement or major repair in the short-term,” said Zmich, who had 12 solar panels installed on her roof. “Then they checked out my breaker box, made sure I had space for it and in terms of the install — it took two and a half days and the guys were super professional, super sweet.”

Lucky for Zmich, she no longer has an electric bill. However, she is still a customer of an energy provider. During the day when the sun is shining, the solar panels on top of her Fishtown home produce more energy than she needs. The excess electricity produced goes back to the energy provider, but at night or any other time the sun isn’t shining, the energy provider sends the excess energy back to her house. Ideally, Zmich would have a battery kept somewhere in her house to store the excess energy, but the technology for that has yet to become cost-efficient.

“There was almost nothing about it that was hard,” she said, adding that she’d recommend it to any homeowner in the city. “It’s cool that I don’t have to buy coal energy. I’m into the sustainability aspect of it.”

According to both Zmich and the Philadelphia Energy Authority, an independent office created by City Council President Darrell L. Clarke (5th District), the enrollment process is easy.

“We will do a pre-screening to check for shading, roof condition and a few other questions, and then hand the homeowner off to an installer,” said a representative from PEA. “They will put together a complete proposal for your specific roof and walk you through it.”

According to the PEA, the average Philly rowhouse roof can fit about 5 kW of solar, and in Phase 1, the average cost was about $16,000 for a set of solar panels. Additionally, there is a 30 percent federal tax credit that you get back in Year 1.

“We will be offering a subsidized option to low- and moderate-income homeowners in Phase 2,” said the PEA.

It should be noted that while there are obvious costs to installing solar panels, homeowners in many cases will no longer have to pay an electric bill.

Solarize Philly offered enrollment from July 1 to Oct. 31 and referred homeowners to one of three installers chosen in an open and competitive Request for Proposals process: Solar States, KISS Electric and Moore Energy. Zmich went with Solar States.

“The guys at Solar States were super great, super knowledgeable,” she said. “It was a cool way to have some agency in expressing values with my money in that way. I’m going to have to use electricity anyway so why would I buy coal energy if I don’t have to?”

A closer look at Kate Zmich‘s solar panels on the roof of her Fishtown home.

In Phase 1, the PEA said, the average customer saved about $2,000 below market prices by participating in Solarize Philly.

“Energy is a powerful vehicle for impact in our city,” said the PEA. “Residential solar creates more jobs per dollar invested than any other energy investment you can make — including fossil fuels. For every 100 households that sign up, 15 living wage jobs will be created. This is an opportunity to create family-sustaining careers that don’t require a college degree, reduces household expenses and helps Philly move the needle on poverty and equity.”

In addition, Solarize Philly helps fund solar and other energy-related job training in Philadelphia public schools.

“Last summer, we trained our first cohort of 18 students, and will train another group of 25 beginning in February 2018 from Franklin, Randolph and Mastbaum high schools,” the agency said. “Graduating students receive mentorship and get connected to solar and energy companies that are hiring interns, apprentices and full-time installers.”

Zmich said that of the two installers who came to her house from Solar States, one of them recently graduated from Youthbuild Charter School in Yorktown.

Zmich took out a 10-year loan to pay for her solar panels with no down payment. She pays about $50 a month for the loan, but she no longer has to pay an electric bill, which was about the same amount. She called the decision to go solar a “no-brainer.”

“The energy authority group buyer discount thing made total sense to be another person in that pool to keep lowering it for everybody,” said Zmich. “The fact that it is such a relatively large program in the city gave me confidence that if anything went wrong it would be like ‘yeah, well, me and 200 other people are mad at you,’ so we have leverage in that way. Not that I think anything would go wrong, but it was just like this is a group of us doing this together kind of thing. So it just felt like it made total sense.”

For more information visit solarizephilly.org.