Following its official launch on March 5, Solarize Blacksburg has begun its mission to spread affordable solar energy to the people of Blacksburg.

Solarize Blacksburg is a clean energy initiative that will assist residents in installing solar panels on their houses through May 31. The project is co-sponsored by the Town of Blacksburg, Christiansburg’s Community Housing Partners, advocacy non-profit Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods and a pair of local solar installers.

Converting to solar energy is usually expensive, but the program brings the price down by eliminating an upfront cost, offering long-term financing, providing a 30 percent tax credit and using bulk purchasing methods.

After the SunShot program — an initiative by the Department of Energy that focuses on making solar energy more accessible and affordable — gave a presentation at Virginia Tech last summer, Virginia Tech professor John Randolph and others from the Town of Blacksburg began working on Solarize Blacksburg.

The program offers a free consultation to see if residents’ houses are able to support solar panels.

“We’re out there doing the initial, time consuming leg work and then turning it over to local installers,” said Carol Davis, the sustainability manager for the Town of Blacksburg.

Currently, 170 people have signed up for the initial free assessment, which means Solarize Blacksburg will do a satellite assessment of the houses' roof using Google Earth to see if they're a good fit for solar panels.

Even if the roof isn’t in ideal conditions, residents may still be able to install a ground mount system. After that assessment, the resident will be connected with a solar installer, who will do a site assessment before beginning work.

The ideal roof for solar panels will be in good condition and will be facing the sun. Mason Cavell, the energy programs director of Community Housing Partners, says that most people who have signed up have houses that fit the qualifications for solar panels.

While residents will have to pay to install solar panels in their homes, they may save more money in the long-term. By converting to solar energy, residents would lock in their utility rates while still paying about the same price per month as they do now for electricity.

“There’s sort of the hard cost which is the panels themselves and the equipment and the soft cost, which is permitting and customer acquisition and the solar installers,” Davis said. "What we decided to do, and what the Solarize concept is, is that you pull together a band of volunteers and they are the ones really out there in the community pitching the idea of solar… and doing the work of the installer to reduce that cost."

The Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, a non-profit that supports housing in rural communities, also contributed to the major price cuts for the project through its PowerSaver loan program.

The VT Environmental Coalition and different classes are also contributing to Solarize Blacksburg through class projects and other input.

Solarize Blacksburg is the first Solarize project in Virginia, a state that hasn’t had a lot of positive policy change pertaining to solar energy compared to other nearby states. The Solar Energy Industries Association pegs solar installations to be up 41 percent in the nation, with Maryland ranked at number 16 for installed solar capacity and North Carolina in third.

“(Virginia) doesn’t have the best policies to advance renewable energy," Cavell said. "Because it’s in that difficult policy climate we wanted to do something where we didn’t have to have any laws changed, we didn’t need to do any lobbying. The Solarize program is a way to get more solar panels installed within existing regulatory standards."

Residents can sign up for a consultation on the project’s website, solarizeblacksburg.org.

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