How to Get Solar and Energy Efficiency to Play Nice  

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solar and energy efficiency

Credit: LEAP

The solar and energy efficiency industries often are seen as brethren in the clean energy cause. But in truth, they are competitors. Energy efficiency undercuts solar profits. The more efficient a home or building, the fewer solar panels it needs.

As a result, it’s difficult to get solar installers to abide by the oft-stated recommendation that they make sure the home is as energy efficient as possible before they size the solar energy system.

I recently wrote an article about a solution proposed in California, which was to make solar a subset of state energy efficiency programs. (See Would Homeowners Say “Yes” to Energy Efficiency if it Came with Solar?)  The model would capitalize on solar’s popularity to help spur more energy efficiency. I didn’t realize at the time that my home town of Charlottesville, Virginia, already was doing just that.

How Solarize Works

Solarize Charlottesville is one of the many solarize programs springing up nationally that reduce solar costs for local homes and businesses through economies of scale.  Begun in Portland, Oregon, solarize programs engage in collective negotiations with select installers who are willing to offer a group discount for a limited time within a community.

Like microgrids and solar gardens, solarize programs dovetail with the growing local energy movement. Cities, states, neighborhood groups and non-profit organizations are among those that launch solarize programs.  (See this partial list of solarize programs. )

Is there a solarize program in your community? Tell us how it works by joining the discussion on our LinkedIn Group, Energy Efficiency Markets.

What makes Solarize Charlottesville particularly interesting? The program was begun by a non-profit organization that has spent years making local homes and businesses more efficient in central and northern Virginia. The Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) has walked the talk by promoting rather unsexy energy efficiency measures, like insulation and lighting, before moving  into the popular solar energy arena. The group waited until solar pricing looked right.

Since the second quarter of 2010, solar prices have dropped 61 percent, according to a report published by the Solar Energy Industries Association/GTM Research. The low prices are spurring a tremendous level of solar adoption. Installations are expected to grow by 36 percent this year. Through the first half of the year, 53 percent of all new electric capacity installed in the US came from solar.

“LEAP has been doing energy efficiency in this community for a little over four years now. We have been following the renewable markets pretty closely. It wasn’t until this year that we looked at the prices of PV dropping and said, ‘Man it is time to do something,’” said Jon Proffitt, LEAP’s solar program manager.

Tremendous Response from Community

Solarize Charlottesville proved popular beyond LEAP’s imagining. In the three-month application period (July 1-Sept. 30), it received more than three times the applications expected. The two  solar installers that LEAP selected for the program found themselves a bit  “inundated” with more than 1,000 homeowners and businesses signing up, Proffitt said.

“During our launch event, I announced to everybody  that we were hoping to get 300 homeowners signed up. I think two weeks later we had already reached that number.  They just kept coming,” he said. “It wasn’t long before we were over 500 and were sending messages out to everybody letting them know we were going to be a bit slower than we originally thought, but we’d make sure we got to everyone and provided quality service.”

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The good news is that LEAP was able to use the extra time to educate the applicants and begin energy savings improvements at several homes. As a value add, any solarize homeowner served by Dominion (the largest utility in the area) also could sign up for free home energy efficiency evaluation. More than half of the solarize applicants either had already undergone the LEAP evaluation or signed up to do so as part of the solar program.  So for them energy efficiency came first, as it should given that it’s the cheapest, cleanest ‘fuel.’

“It’s really boosted our energy efficiency work. Several of the homeowners who have gone through our solarize program are working directly with LEAP to both reduce and produce, meaning they are doing a kind of whole house energy retrofit,”  Proffitt said.

The solarize program is contributing to a larger goal LEAP has been pursuing; the  nonprofit hopes to ‘build’ a virtual power plant for the area – create enough energy savings or distributed energy to avert the construction of a central power plant.

As Proffitt explains it, virtual power “is offsetting energy that would come from a potential future power plant, either by saving or by producing distributed clean energy. Either way still accomplishes pretty much the same goal. It all plays into the same idea of instead of having a central power plant – natural gas, nuclear, coal-fired plant somewhere – we have our own clean energy here in this community,” he said.

LEAP is offering Solarize Charlottesville in partnership with the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the UVA Community Credit Union. In early October, it also will launch a solarize program in Northern Virginia, beginning in Leesburg. In addition, the organization is in talks with other groups throughout the state about forming a Virginia-wide solarize program.

More information about Solarize Charlottesville, including pricing and financing details, can be found here. Separately, the Clean Energy States Alliance has published a guide on how to get a Solarize campaign started, which is available  here.

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Great subject to get out into the open. I have respect for solar installers that lead with the “get efficient first” philosophy.

  2. Bill Stein says:

    Same holds true for small wind. I remember when Mike Bergey told me about 20 years ago he always encourages energy efficiency in the home or business when putting in one of his small (1 KW or 10 KW) wind turbines.
    Excellent information.


  3. Bill Prindle says:

    Full disclosure: I am on LEAP’s board, and also a Solarize participant. This is in indeed a win-win proposition; a few additional comments:
    1. Not every home is suited for solar, but almost all have some EE opportunities. Roof orientation, tree shading, etc. rule out a number of sites that could initially look promising. So offering the free home energy checkup along with the solar assessment is likely to give most all participants something they can do.
    2. Solar has a strong gut appeal for a certain market segment, and those folks are willing to pay the big bucks. But many also have unrealistic expectations, namely that putting panels on the roof will eliminate their electric bill. Many get a shock when they still see significant dollars on their bills after installation. Only then do some of these folks ask the question “how much do I use?” and get focused on EE. So solar can be an effective EE marketing strategy as well.
    3. As an aggregator/marketer, LEAP is able to generate some fee income from the program, which is helping keep the nonprofit financially sounds. EE projects aren’t typically as big as solar installations, and so can’t bear much in the way of “soft costs” needed to support marketing and management. This is one of the most fundamental barriers to EE investment–economists call this a “transaction cost barrier.” Supply projects like pipelines or powerplants are huge, and can support lots of lawyers and investment bankers to drive the deals. EE comes in much smaller chunks, and so combining EE with solar increases the average project size, and makes it more possible for groups like LEAP to exist and drive markets like this.

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