Condoizing solar, part 4: options for condos

As part of my research on getting a solar PV system for my San Francisco condo complex, I thought I’d look around and see what other condos have done. (I’m especially interested in condos that share roof space, which presents extra challenges.) With the whole Internet at my disposal, I expected to encounter the usual information overload. Instead, I found that very few condos have managed to go solar.

Existing solar condos

Of the few condos in the U.S. that have incorporated solar PV (a handful of others use solar thermal), many are new developments rather than existing ones, and they’ve emerged only recently. Some examples:

  • In 2010, a small set of 8 luxury condos with solar went on the market in San Francisco.
  • A 21-unit complex in Austin built in 2009 incorporated solar for the common areas as well as many other green features.
  • Also in 2009, a 60-unit LEED-certified complex in Denver offered “solar mortgages” to those who chose to power their new condo with solar—and the condos sold like hotcakes, even in a bad market.
  • In 2008, 3 renovated condos for sale in Washington, D.C., were said to be that city’s first solar condos.

As sparse as the examples are of new condos with solar, I had to dig even more to find existing condos that have gone solar. Some condos and co-ops in New York have used creative budgeting to purchase solar systems that would eventually save money. A large California development added solar for their common electricity, funded in part by money they raised recycling paper and cans. And a few condo owners have managed to purchase solar panels for their own units: one couple in Chicago funded their system by asking for donations as wedding gifts, with the balance offset by rebates and tax credits. They had a surprisingly easy time dealing with their condo homeowners’ association. But many others have been unable to do what they did; success with this option depends not only on affordability but also on a cooperative HOA board and adequate and available roof space.

Challenges and options for condos

Condos face unique challenges in going solar. Taller buildings may not have enough roof area to provide solar for the common electricity, let alone all the units. If space is not an issue, financing generally is. A system for a condo complex can be prohibitively expensive, and most HOAs don’t have the extra cash to invest (or to pay for a loan, if they can get one), even if the system will eventually pay off. Taking advantage of rebates and incentives is complicated, since multiple owners are involved. Legal issues and condo regulations can also get in the way.

Using a PACE program, something we considered, adds even more complications. These programs allow homeowners to finance solar and other energy-efficiency improvements through loans that are paid back as part of owners’ property taxes, making them tax-deductible and therefore more affordable. But in a condo development there are multiple owners, and they can’t all be forced to opt in to the program. Condo HOA boards, like ours, are likely to find the situation too complicated legally—no condo has yet used a PACE program in San Francisco, and I don’t know of any in other parts of the country. For now, the issue is moot since the programs are on hold indefinitely.

An option for homeowners without enough cash for a system, and one that we considered since our relatively new HOA doesn’t have extra cash, is a lease. Though we’d be committed to a 25-year contract, this option comes with no upfront costs and very quick savings: as energy costs rise every year, the cost for 50 – 60% of our common electricity would be controlled. And after 25 years, we’d own the system. But leases are hard to come by, since solar companies need investors to finance them. And it’s only worth it for the investors if certain incentives are in place. In our case, because those incentives end this year, we don’t have enough time to thoroughly review and approve a contract for a lease.

The future of solar condos

Even as we consider a lease, we need to think ahead to future possibilities. A solar system will likely last over 25 years, so would we be better off waiting for improvements in the technology than being stuck with a system for that long? More efficient panels and solar film are already available, but for now not readily available or affordable. Current technology has been in place since the 1960s, and systems installed then are still producing energy. So waiting doesn’t seem productive — while we wait we wouldn’t realize any savings, and more important, climate change won’t wait for better technology.

One emerging trend for condo and apartment dwellers (as well as homeowners with roofs not suitable for solar panels) is the solar garden or solar farm, a community-owned solar installation in a location other than the owners’ homes. The gardens can be on the roofs of nearby schools or other public buildings that have sufficient space and sunlight for a solar array, or even on otherwise “unusable” land. Not only does this allow many people to get solar who otherwise could not, but it lowers costs because the panels are bought and installed in bulk. Many solar gardens claim to be the first, which points to the fact that the installations haven’t received much press. But they’ve been around for at least a few years in the U.S. and longer in Europe.

For solar gardens and other solar options for condos to work, it’s key for both federal and state legislation to support them. Some states already have favorable legislation in place, and more is on the horizon. Laws are changing to help promote solar for multi-unit dwellings. There’s a shift from requiring that each solar system use only one meter to the idea of virtual net metering, where multiple homes use power from a single installation and are charged according to varying formulas.

In the course of my research I’ve not only scoured the Internet but also consulted with groups and individuals who work in solar or are experts on condos. I’ve been surprised at the scarcity of information and options for condos. With growing numbers of Americans living in multi-unit buildings, many of them in condos, it’s crucial to make solar available to them as well as everyone else. While I’ve been disappointed by the dearth of information and examples on solar for condos, I’m encouraged that more people are asking about solar for condos and finding creative, innovative solutions. And more laws are facilitating these solutions. I hope this will be a growing trend and that soon, anyone wanting solar for their condo will have a clear, easy path to achieve that goal.

See also:

 

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