An energy system that works for everyone: Why one nonprofit is fighting for rooftop solar in Indiana

A national nonprofit is empowering Indiana communities to convert to solar energy, one neighbor at a time.

According to Solar United Neighbors of Indiana Program Director Zach Schalk, it all starts and ends with education.

“What we do, really, is to help people get solar training together and facilitate their purchase, where homeowners, neighbors, and businesses come together and leverage their purchasing power,” he says. “Through our technical support, they get an opportunity to learn about the process and get a little bit hand-holding along the way.”

The co-op model is a means to that end. Solar United Neighbors organizes 50-100 neighbors into a group, what's known as a "co-op." Co-op participants leverage bulk-purchasing power to get discounted pricing and a quality installation. Right now, the co-ops are located in central Indiana, but they also make it possible for individuals in other counties to go solar on their own terms.

But why solar, and why now?

According to Schalk, rooftop solar can reduce electricity bills, protect the environment, and strengthen communities while creating a safe, affordable, and resilient energy system. But the reality is that the state's monopoly utilities and some elected officials have a vested interest in silencing this message because of financial gain.

That’s a shame, if you ask Schalk, because the potential solar adoption offers is great. 

“When all stakeholders come together, we can create better policies and make it easier for solar and more people actually benefit from solar energy. So that creates a virtuous cycle."

Case in point: Solar installers and supporting positions are among the fastest-growing jobs country for a number of years now. In addition, these clean-energy jobs outnumber coal energy jobs in the state, 5-to-1. In Schalk's words, "solar is definitely the future."

To get there, it involves both retrofitting existing homes and integrating solar into new construction. Schalk says that younger homeowners, who tend to be more socially conscious, are demanding solar—and experience a return on investment at the same time.

“We're seeing the market shift in that direction,” he says. “National studies have shown that solar definitely increases your property value and is increasingly appealing.”

There are also financial incentives in the form of reduced state property tax deductions. 

Yet despite these perks, some people have hesitations because solar and renewable energy as a whole are not widely understood, Schalk explains.

For instance, homeowners might think that Indiana is not equipped for solar power because it’s not a "sunny state," like California. But research proves otherwise.

Schalk says according to the National Renewable Energy Lab, the amount of solar resources available in Indiana is almost double that of Germany, which has some of the highest solar penetration in the entire world. 

“So I think people are starting to understand its potential here,” he says. “They look around and say, 'If we can grow corn and soybeans here, we can capture some of those electrons for solar.'" 

Another barrier is the fact that a lot of important conversations around solar are happening at the state level. 

“So you have power as a voter in Indiana or an Indiana resident, whether you're a solar owner or not," he says. "You can fight to make solar more readily available for residents by contacting your state representative and letting them know that you want to see more Hoosiers going solar, and you want to know what they're going to do about it.”
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.