As Maryland prepares to allow those without solar panels to buy into solar power, a Silver Spring man with a background in renewable energy hopes to be on the cutting edge of the “community solar” trend.
Gary Skulnik, who co-founded and ran a wind power company called Clean Currents, announced Thursday he’s launching Neighborhood Sun with financial backing from MOM’s Organic Market founder and Chevy Chase resident Scott Nash.
Skulnik told Bethesda Beat on Thursday the company is one of the first in the state to take advantage of legislation passed in 2015 in the General Assembly setting up the community solar concept.
Those who pay Neighborhood Sun a subscription fee would effectively be helping to fund solar panel arrays in open fields, on large buildings and in other places built by the company in partnership with solar panel firms.
As the electricity generated from the solar panels is channeled into the regular power grid of a utility such as Pepco, subscribers would receive a credit on their monthly utility bills for every kilowatt-hour of solar they purchased.
Skulnik said rates will generally be in the 12 cents to 14 cents per kilowatt hour range. He estimated that subscribers would end up saving about 10 percent on their monthly electric bills after the credits. He thinks the idea will be especially attractive to those who either can’t install solar panels on their homes or who want to avoid the costs of installing such a system.
“Our product is for people who can’t get solar on their roof. About 49 percent of rooftops are not eligible for rooftop solar,” Skulnik said. “If you consider apartment-dwellers and others, about 80 percent aren’t able to install their own solar panels.”
Neighborhood Sun’s revenue will come from a small charge part of the subscription fees and from developer fees for helping to set up solar panel arrays and finding subscribers to help pay back into the project.
Skulnik said his company, which for now is based out of his home and has two part-time employees, is looking to partner with solar companies to build solar panel arrays, including on churches, synagogues, office buildings, shopping centers and empty lots.
Subscribers will receive credits from their utilities for the electricity generated from solar panel arrays in that utility’s area.
State utility regulators have approved regulations to help implement the 2015 bill and Skulnik said those regulations will probably go into effect in June. States including Colorado, Minnesota and Massachusetts already have community solar programs.
The company hopes to achieve Benefit Corporation status from the state, which is given to for-profit companies focused on creating a public benefit relating to social or environmental issues.
“Our approach is we want to really build communities. We’re not just about creating consumers,” Skulnik said. “Our goal would be to have a nonprofit community partner that we could work with to sell the subscriptions to members of their communities so it could be a community-building exercise.”
In 2005, Skulnik co-founded Clean Currents, a company that provided a similar service for wind power. It was named one of Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing companies and served about 15,000 homes and 3,000 businesses in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania before closing in 2014 due to large cost spikes in the alternative energy wholesale market.
Skulnik said Neighborhood Sun is different because buying into wind power often was more expensive than relying on mainstream utilities, particularly for residential customers. The company also hopes to be relying on power generated in a customers’ general area.
“It’s one thing to buy electricity from a wind farm in Texas, Illinois or Pennsylvania, but it’s another to buy solar power down the street,” Skulnik said. “The power plant is here. The company is here. You’re here. Everything is all within the state.”
Skulnik said the company has a few sites secured and anticipates announcing solar panel projects in the next couple of months.
“We are making presentations across the state,” Skulnik said. “We really are operating in a way that is going to benefit the community and the environment.”