Nancy Arntson spent a year thinking about installing solar panels at her Salem, Ore., home.
It wasn't until her neighbors decided to take the plunge together — generating significant savings — that she made up her mind to do it.
"It takes the right financial incentive to make it happen," Arntson said.
The group of neighbors, called "Solarize Salem," is the latest in a wave of grass-roots efforts around the country to connect homeowners interested in solar power.
The homeowners attend educational workshops, buy solar panels in bulk and negotiate a group discount with a panel installer. The practice can save 10% to 30% off the cost of installation, organizers say.
In Salem, Arntson will pay $2,067 for a 12-panel system with a price tag of about $18,000, after state and federal tax credits, she said.
In Portland, Ore., a neighborhood effort to help homeowners go solar proved so popular it has spread across the state, project co-founder Tim O'Neal said.
"The hook is definitely the price. But beyond that, help navigating the incentives, tax credits, technology, components, really made it a lot easier for most people," O'Neal said.
In addition to negotiating a discount, the community projects educate homeowners about local, state and federal rebates and tax deductions, which can also bring down costs.
Solar installations have more than doubled since the first Portland project in 2008, said Lizzie Rubado with Energy Trust of Oregon, which handles state energy-improvement rebates. Last year, there were 363 installations, about half of which were community solar projects, she said.
• In San Jose, Calif., a group of city employees and retirees partnered with their credit union and a solar installer to negotiate low-interest loans and discounted installations, said Jessie Denver, the city's community solar program coordinator.
• San Antonio will launch a program next month to connect neighborhoods with solar installers and banks offering low-
interest installation loans, city spokeswoman Christine Chapa said.
Solar group programs have been launched in 16 cities in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, by a for-profit company called One Block Off the Grid, using a similar model.
"If you get 200 people getting the same deal, and they know experts have negotiated it, they're a lot more comfortable taking the plunge," company founder Dave Llorens said.
A round of projects to install solar panels in southeast Portland cost an average of $20,000 each, but most homeowners will pay $3,000 to $4,000, Rubado said.
The program transformed Emily Ip's northeast Portland neighborhood, putting solar panels on nearly every roof. After all the tax credits and rebates, Ip and her husband paid $1,500 for the system.
"We're never going to get that deal again," Ip said of the group discount.
Some employers are getting in on the solar deals, too.
In New Jersey, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with installer GeoGenix to offer its employees a group installation discount, said Maureen Regan Tusim, a solar industry consultant who represents the installer.
Installers can offer discounts because there are savings in group installations: they can go to just one permitting office with a dozen applications, send crews to one neighborhood at a time and save on marketing costs, Tusim said .