Solar Savings: System to Cut Costs Up to 75%

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BERKELEY, Calif.-Cooperative Center FCU here has completed installation of a 29.7 kilowatt DC photovoltaic solar system that it projects will reduce its electric bill by 65% to 75%.

Local vendor Sun Light & Power placed 108 Suntech 275 solar panels on the roof of the credit union's headquarters in February and March. The system is expected to produce at least 42,028 kilowatt hours per year, which the company said is enough to power four homes.

Gary Bell, CEO of the $80-million CU, told Credit Union Journal the timing is good because daylight savings time means longer days of sunshine have arrived.

"It took about two months to install, because there was a lot of rain this winter," he reported. "PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric], our utility company, inspected the system on April 6. We went offline, the solar was hooked up, and then we plugged back in. The city still needs to do an inspection, then PG&E will sign off on the permits, and then we will be good. It should be up and running on or before April 20."

According to Bell, part of Cooperative Center's business plan states it is an "environmentally friendly and socially responsible" financial institution. Because Berkeley has a well-earned reputation of being a hotbed of social activism, he said the membership is "very excited" about the fact their money is being used to finance a solar energy project for the credit union.

"We had to close early [on April 6] to shut down the power. Usually people get upset when there is a closure, but when they came to the door and we explained what was going on, they were happy. They told us to carry on."

CCFCU paid $150,000 for installation, but received a 30% credit on that amount through a California energy rebate program. Bell noted there are federal solar rebates available in certain circumstances, but the credit union was not eligible for those because it is a federally insured, not-for-profit organization. "That really would have been a good deal if we could have gotten a federal rebate, too," he quipped.

Slashing Electricity Costs

Cooperative Center's utility bill averages approximately $2,300 to $2,500 per month, depending on the time of year. Bell said it is projecting ROI in the form of a 65%-75% reduction in that figure, with payback projected in approximately seven to eight years.

The energy the CU needs to operate its facility during the daytime will be provided by the solar panels, Bell said. After sunset, it will need to pull some energy off the grid.

"It was not an easy process; it took a while," he said. "But we used a local vendor that provided jobs and training to people in the area. And we are going to be lowering our carbon footprint."

The next step, he continued, is to get the headquarters building LEED certified. "We are trying to lead by example. We will host regular workshops for our members on the value of going solar, and will come up with a solar loan program for members to install solar at their homes or small businesses.

"It is very exciting because this is something we have been working on for a while. We are happy to be there. We have a lobby display on energy efficiency, which we are marrying with solar power and solar loans."

The credit union offers other environmental initiatives, including its Green Awards checking account that pays 3.01% interest and refunds ATM fees to the members' account.

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