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County vies to recover solar panel program participation after slump in 2023

Workers installing solar panels (via Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services/Flickr)

A proposed county contract aims to incentivize Arlington residents to resume buying as many solar panels as they once did.

The Arlington County Board on Saturday is set to consider whether to approve an agreement with Solar United Neighbors (SUN), which runs the Capital Area Solar Switch program, a co-op that provides financial incentives to people who buy solar panels from local vendors.

A county report argues that the county’s failure to enter into such an agreement last year caused a precipitous drop in solar installations.

“Until 2023, Arlington County was first, regionally and supra-regionally, in program performance,” the report says, noting that 401 residents registered for Solar Switch in 2022 and 26% had panels installed.

That all changed last year after SUN asked participating counties to enter into memorandums of understanding with the company, pledging to work with SUN to conduct public outreach about the program.

“Absent a full MOU, SUN advised that its ability to provide full outreach, marketing, and promotional services would be limited,” the report says. “In 2023, execution of an MOU with SUN did not occur.”

This had consequences for Arlington.

While program registrations surged in Maryland’s Montgomery and Frederick counties, which signed MOUs with the company, Arlington’s numbers slumped. Just 148 residents registered for the co-op last year — and of these, only 11, or 7%, went through with actually installing solar panels.

“Arlington County’s active participation with SUN’s annual solar co-op ‘Capital Area Solar Switch’ directly impacts the resulting number of rooftop PV solar that is installed on residential roofs in the County each year,” the report says. “In 2023, however, the marketing, outreach and promotional support to the County from SUN was [minimal]… While the County conducted promotions to educate residents and promote the solar co-op, SUN focused its time and resources where MOUs were in place and diverted their services and resources to those jurisdictions.”

Under the proposed memorandum of understanding, the county would agree to provide information about Solar Switch on its website, in blog posts and on its newsletter. The county would also agree to share social media posts, help with a “public launch” of the program and allow the company to use the county logo on some materials.

The contract notes that this is not a joint venture but rather, “an agreement between the Parties with the goal of furthering their respective missions.” The agreement would expire Dec. 31 unless the parties extended it.

Arlington’s Community Energy Plan seeks to have all of the county’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2035, with the goal of becoming fully carbon neutral by 2050.

That effort will require more significant buy-in from residents, advocates say, as all Arlington County operations have relied on renewable energy since early 2023. More than 80% of that power comes from offsets generated by the Arlington-Amazon solar panel farm in Pittsylvania County, which opened in 2022.

Photo via Arlington DES/Flickr

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