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Brandon Puccio of Marion has long tried to be a good steward of the Earth, purchasing a series of electric cars, looking for ways to minimize his carbon imprint and shopping around on his own for a rooftop solar array for his home in the Linn-Mar area. “I was always curious and what really pushed me over the edge was all of the [rate] hikes Alliant was trying to do,” said Mr. Puccio, who gathered quotes from about four installers before being introduced two years ago to Grow Solar Linn County, an innovative program that allows participants to reap 9-15% discounts on the purchase price of solar panel installation, while saving big money by hitting a series of group buy thresholds. “[The program] beat the competition by 30-40% and that’s even without the group buy incentives.” Dejan Dragas, an ecologically minded southwest Cedar Rapids engineer, tells a similar story. After spending time and effort hunting for a solar solution, hoping to offset “the huge carbon footprint” he’d racked up traveling frequently in the pre-COVID era, Mr. Dragas also stumbled upon the program in 2019. “My main driver was ecological,” he said. “But on top of this investment to save the planet, you get a return on that investment” – one that eventually pays for the installation and a large chunk of monthly utility bills, to boot. After four years in existence, it’s safe to say Grow Solar Linn County and its sister program, Solarize Johnson County, are unqualified successes. Together, they have prompted 418 Corridor households, farms and businesses to “go solar” thanks to a unique partnership with the Wisconsin-based Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), which is administering the program, and this year’s installer, Eagle Point Solar. Hosting the program in alternating years, the efforts have resulted in installation of a combined 2.8 megawatts of clean solar capacity valued at approximately $6.7 million. This year, however, the two counties are launching their first-ever collaborative effort, Grow Solar Linn + Johnson Counties, a joining of forces aimed at building on past successes and making the most of a suddenly online world that makes geographical challenges easier to navigate. The joint program launched last week with the first of 14 planned online Solar Power Hours to educate the public and help residents and businesses determine if solar is a good fit for them. “The program itself is really kind of based on two steps,” said Amy Drahos, senior air quality scientist with Linn County Public Health. “We have the educational component; we want to make sure that our community knows about solar energy. And then the next step for those that attend the power hours, if they say that they are ready to install on their home, this is an opportunity for them to participate and receive more affordable solar pricing. And that’s based off a group buy model, so the more people that sign up to install solar, the lower the price of the [return on investment] cost of this solar installation will be. And there are different tiers, so as more people sign up, and we hit those tiers, the price will lower for all participants, whether they sign up at the beginning of the program, or near the end.” Ms. Drahos and her Johnson County counterpart Becky Soglin, sustainability coordinator with Johnson County Planning, Development and Sustainability, hope to blast past benchmarks of 50, 150, 250 and 500 kilowatts. Hitting the benchmarks matters, Ms. Soglin said, because the more people that participate, the less expensive the installations become. “As you reach each of those thresholds, it’s hundreds of dollars that it adds up to, dependent on the size of your array,” she added. “And all of the discounts inherent in the group by program are separate from what people can achieve using their tax credit.” The federal Investment Tax Credit currently allows purchasers of solar arrays to deduct 26% of the total system cost from federal taxes and is supplemented with an 11% state deduction. The federal deduction is set to step down to 22% for 2023 and be eliminated thereafter, making time of the essence for anyone interested in solarizing their home or business. And that’s without mentioning utility savings. Estimated first-year savings on utility bills have ranged from $690 to more than $1,000, depending on the size of the array. “Because so many people are working from home now, lowering electricity bills is more important than ever,” said Peter Murphy, solar program director with MREA. “There’s a huge demand for information about solar, and we’re demonstrating that solar and energy efficiency can help lots of people lower their bills and improve their quality of life.” Lower bills have certainly been a bonus for Mr. Puccio, who says he hasn’t paid an electric bill since his installation in 2019, other than a line fee. “So basically, 10 bucks a month,” he said. “I’ve been able to gain enough credits in excess generation that I’m really only paying the line fee, which, from a financial standpoint, is really enjoyable. At the end of the day, being able to produce 110% of my own energy means I’m going to be able to see return on a $9,000 or $10,000 investment in about five years,” taking into account the tax credits. Mr. Dragas said doing his homework has also started to pay off. In addition to saving about 30% off the cost of what installation might have been, hitting the 500-kilowatt threshold for the group buy in 2019 “made a huge difference.” For purposes of example, Mr. Dragas shared that he spent a total of $17,630 for his set-up, offset by a federal tax credit of $5,595 (the credit was 30% at the time) and an Iowa credit of $2,798 for a total investment of $9,237. Recouping that investment has been a bit slower process than for Mr. Puccio, however, because he chose to oversize his array by 25%, knowing that his consumption would be increasing soon with his mother moving to the United States from overseas and plans to expand his family. That meant that his consumption did not rise high enough to immediately qualify for full net metering from Alliant. That changed last fall when his mother moved in. Since October, Mr. Dragas’ home has been on net metering, allowing him to save an estimated total of about $1,600 over six months. Ms. Soglin said typical participants in past programs have been primarily motivated by wanting to save money and “consciously thinking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” According to Mr. Murphy, solar installations added through the earlier group buys in Linn and Johnson counties offset the equivalent of 5,168,213 pounds of carbon dioxide in a single year – the equivalent of carbon sequestered by over 3,000 acres of forest. “And obviously, things have come a long way in the last 30-40 years and now, in the last 10 years, we’ve seen the pricing generally become more affordable, so people can really consider it,” Ms. Soglin said, noting that it isn’t just city dwellers signing up – more than one in four Johnson County installations were in unincorporated areas of the county. “Some people want to save money, others are concerned more with the environmental impacts, and it’s really been a fun experience getting to meet all of these all of the different people that live within our community and hearing what their interests are.” The solar group buy model first came to Iowa in 2017 after Cedar Rapids Sustainability Coordinator Eric Holthaus met an MREA representative at a conference and brought the group to Linn County to administer a countywide effort, along with a group of community nonprofit partners. “And it was very successful – we had fantastic attendance and great participation,” said Ms. Drahos of the launch that drew nearly 500 residents to the power hours and resulted in more than 100 homeowners, farmers and businesses contracting installations through the program – making it the largest-ever solar group buy program in the Midwest to that date, representing more than 600kW of solar. The program moved to Johnson County in the summer of 2018. Not to be outdone, Johnson County promptly broke that record with 180 installations. “We give a lot of credit to Cedar Rapids and Linn County because they inspired us to then go ahead and do our program,” Ms. Soglin said, adding Johnson County learned from the success of their neighbors to the north and added a twist of its own by making cities within the county partners in the program. A sort of friendly competition ensued, with both counties attempting to top themselves and one another as they traded off years. Then came 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a decision to take the program online. The program, hosted by Johnson County last year, still managed to complete installations at 41 homes and businesses, but it was a tougher sell with people’s minds elsewhere. “And because each county has done it twice, there’s a certain level of familiarity amongst some of our residents,” Ms. Soglin said. “To some degree, it’s a little more challenging now to get some participants. There were a lot of early adopters … so for getting the most out of the effort, having a larger area makes sense. And the fact that it’s online removes a little bit of what had been a physical challenge. If something was hosted all the way down in Hills, that was quite a distance for somebody from Marion to drive.” Ms. Drahos said last August’s derecho, while devastating, opened up new opportunities for some homeowners to consider solar. “We have so many people who have replaced roofs, and if you have a newer roof, that’s a great time to install solar,” she said. “They may have also, unfortunately, lost trees in their yard [where previously] they had too much shade, or a solar array may not have worked … I do think there are going to be just several different factors this year and we’ll see how it goes.” New this year, recorded Solar Power Hours will feature American Sign Language and closed captioning, with plans in the works for versions in languages other than English. The Grow Solar Linn + Johnson Counties program will also place more emphasis on energy efficiency than in years past. Program partners Green Iowa AmeriCorps and Johnson Clean Energy District will provide energy efficiency information and, to eligible households, at-home energy efficiency kits. In addition, home energy assessments can be scheduled for the fall, when it is safe to do so. “We have always discussed energy efficiency, but this year, we are going to offer some additional opportunities, because we know that in the home, having solar, that’s great,” Ms. Drahos said. “But we also know that it’s extremely important for homeowners to make sure that their home is energy efficient, to make sure it’s properly insulated, that windows are sealed …because in doing those types of things, we can also help them reduce their energy usage.”