Bay Area Solar Energy Co-op Leads the Way

At a solar energy forum organized by Sustainable Fairfax in 2001, six homeowners hatched a plan to band together and use their collective buying power to realize their shared dream of going solar.

By purchasing several solar energy systems at once, Community Cooperative Energy is able to save its members up to 7% off the retail cost. Photo courtesy of CC Energy

By Bill Picture
Published: October, 2009 

At a solar energy forum organized by Sustainable Fairfax in 2001, six homeowners hatched a plan to band together and use their collective buying power to realize their shared dream of going solar. The prohibitive cost of purchasing and installing a residential solar energy system was one of the main topics of discussion at that meeting. Nevertheless, the hundreds in attendance agreed that solar energy was one viable solution to the energy crisis that, just months earlier, had left thousands of PG&E customers throughout the state quite literally in the dark.

The members of Cooperative Community Energy (CCEnergy), as the group of homeowners would later call themselves, theorized that a Costco-style strategy was the answer to the issue of affordability. That is, while the price tag for a single system was more than most could afford on their own, purchasing several systems at one time would bring the per-system cost down.

“It’s the same model as a food co-op,” explains Daniel Pellegrini, CCEnergy President & CEO. “The difference is that, instead of buying organic rolled oats, we’re buying solar energy systems. We cut out the middleman, go directly to the manufacturer and use the buying power of a community to buy in bulk.”

On average, CCEnergy’s members are paying about 7 percent less than they would if they purchased a system on their own. That single-digit figure is hardly staggering at first glance. But, when you consider that a moderate-size system runs about $24,000 before rebates, the money saved—roughly $1,700—is enough to send a co-op member on a Hawaiian vacation.


To co-op or not to co-op

Naturally, helping members choose the system that is right for them is the first step. Before the shopping begins, however, CCEnergy, which is designated a not-for-profit entity by the State of California, helps members find ways to be more energy efficient. This step is aimed at reducing the amount of capacity that customers need for their solar energy system in the first place. In some cases, potential members have even been talked out of purchasing a solar energy system.


“That’s the difference between us and a for-profit company,” Pellegrini explains. “The for-profit company is going to want to sell you the biggest system you can afford. We say, ‘How about upgrading to energy-efficient appliances first? Have you put in double-pane windows? Have you replaced your incandescent bulbs with fluorescents or LEDs? Is your home insulated properly? If you lower your usage, then you won’t need as big of a system.’ We believe it’s best to utilize an appropriate mix of available technologies to solve energy issues.”


The advantages of co-op membership extend far beyond the cash register, however. Once the system is purchased, members are then able to choose from a network of licensed installers pre-qualified by CCEnergy based on experience and workmanship. CCEnergy even follows up on references provided by the contractors and inspects the job when it’s done.


“We’re kind of like an Angie’s List for solar contractors,” Pellegrini adds. “We’re there on behalf of our members, to make sure they get the best deal possible and that they’re treated right.”


CCEnergy is also currently looking into offering system monitoring. For a fee, CCEnergy would monitor a participating member’s system to make sure that it is operating at its full potential, as a number of things can reduce output—a buildup of dust, debris or even bird droppings on solar panels, for example.


“Right now, the equipment used to do the monitoring is pretty expensive,” Pellegrini explains. “But there are some products coming out that are more cost effective, so we’re asking around to see if this is something that our members would really want and be interested in.”


CCEnergy currently boasts 500 members across California, from as far south as Santa Monica to as far north as Arcata. The majority of its members are in the Bay Area, however. It is the only solar energy co-op in the state. “So we’re either doing something really right, or we’re doing something really wrong,” Pellegrini jokes.


Upping the ante

While CCEnergy’s focus continues to be on residential solar energy systems, the co-op is seeing more businesses and municipalities come onboard, as well as more large-scale residential projects.


“We’re getting into the megawatt-size projects now,” Pellegrini says. “Even then, though, the same philosophy applies. For instance, with a business, the first thing we ask is, ‘Have you upgraded your HVAC unit?’”


CCEnergy’s mix now includes parking garages, food banks, municipal buildings, schools, and, most recently, farms. “We’re seeing more agricultural projects—fruit and vegetable growers, dairies and food processors,” Pellegrini says. “It’s probably our biggest growth area. With stimulus money, there’s more activity at the municipal level as well. Schools have some money now too.”


Giving solar a voice

CCEnergy is making its presence felt in Sacramento and Washington, where the organization is lobbying its advocates to enact legislation that promotes the use of alternative energy and do away with regulations that prohibit the industry’s growth.


Most recently, CCEnergy has been pushing for the passing of an assembly bill (AB560) that would increase the cap on the amount of solar energy that can be fed into the state’s utility grid. Several years ago, the utility companies successfully lobbied for a cap, insisting that too much photovoltaic-produced energy would damage the grid. The cap was originally set at .5 percent of the total load for a particular territory. It didn’t take long to hit that limit, so the cap was raised to 1 percent and, most recently, 2.5 percent. Given the current rate at which solar energy systems are being installed, that latest limit could be reached within a few months.


Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who represents portions of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, has proposed increasing the cap to 10 percent, but the utility companies are insisting that 10 percent is too high. After much back and forth, the number was reduced to 3 percent, but the California Legislature adjourned on September 14 without taking action, leaving AB560 on hold until the next legislative session. If that cap is not increased, once it is reached, no more grid-tied solar energy systems would be allowed to be installed.


CCEnergy is also pushing to extend a stimulus package provision that increases the amount of depreciation that can be claimed by those who purchase solar energy systems. The program is set to end on December 31, 2009.


“Both of these things are really important,” Pellegrini explains. “Not many people are paying attention, though. We’re still pushing, but alternative energy is really underrepresented in Washington influence-wise compared to the big energy companies. But we’ll keep making our case. It ain’t over till it’s over.”


For more information about Cooperative Community Energy, visit

A Bay Area food bank puts its flat roof to good use and purchased a solar energy system through Community Cooperative Energy. Photo courtesy of CC Energy

Cooperative Community Energy’s focus continues to be residential. However, several businesses, non-profits and municipal entities, such as Analy High School in Sebastopol (pictured), have become members. Photo courtesy of CC Energy