By Ray Birch
ST. PAUL, Minn.—Solar power is increasingly moving mainstream, according to one state league, which contends success in the market depends more on providing consumers with valuable information than a great rate.
The Minnesota Credit Union Network says many more consumers now recognize solar is a sound energy option, and has created a website that answers consumers’ detailed questions regarding the potential for saving money using solar.
The MnCUN has launched cu-green.org, a website it describes as a one-stop shop for consumers to visit to determine if a solar system is right for them and their home. While CU Green is in a pilot phase, when the program is available to all CUs in the state the league expects it will alleviate many of the queries and calls currently being fielded by loan officers related to solar energy systems, and possibly even eliminate the need to add more staff if a credit union offers solar loans.
According to the website, Minnesota’s CUs have partnered with the St. Paul Port Authority with a goal of making at least $10 million of affordable financing available for Minnesota businesses and property owners. The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans are intended to upgrade energy efficiency, which includes onsite renewable energy technologies and solar power systems.
“Whether or not to go with a solar system is a tough decision for most people,” said Mara Humphrey, VP of governmental affairs and association services for the Minnesota Network, noting that the expense typically exceeds $20,000. “A lot of the information people need to make their decisions comes from so many different sources. Our goal is to eliminate that tedious process, put all of the information people need in one spot, including how to receive financing—which comes from credit unions—and just make this process a lot simpler.”
Two CUs in Pilot
In addition to CU financing options, the site provides consumers with clean energy information that focuses not only on whether a solar system could work for their home and how much it might cost, but also on finding qualified, trusted contractors and utility incentives.
Two Minnesota CUs are currently in the pilot—Hiway FCU and Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union. The site was developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment’s Climate Smart Municipalities program.
“We began working with the university a couple years ago,” said Humphrey. “The university had entered into an exchange program on clean energy and we all learned some great lessons from that.”
As the partnership grew the university needed a financing element for the program, and Humphrey said the league and credit unions believed they would be a good fit.
“The interest in solar energy in this state is growing rapidly and clean energy lending fits with the credit union philosophy of giving back,” she said.
Other Elements of Program
The website is just part of the CU Green clean energy lending platform, which will focus not only on serving consumers, but also low-income communities and some
commercial business, as well, Humphrey explained.
“Credit unions involved with CU Green will lead by example,” said Humphrey. “Our credit unions in the program are looking at their own facilities and seeing where they can make energy improvements. They can share that information with their members—show them where and how much they are saving with clean energy improvements and giving back to the credit union and the membership.”
Humphrey emphasized that if a credit union opts to offer solar loans it must either hire staff with the expertise or invest in significant training.
“A traditional loan officer would not have the expertise to work with a member on a solar loan, but with our website they can,” she said. “cu-green.org is a clearinghouse of information that guides you step by step through this decision—from determining the size of the solar system needed, the cost, finding trusted contractors and then the financing.”
Initial Loans Made
The site launched in late last year, and Humphrey said initial consumer interest has been good.
“We are still waiting to see the initial traffic numbers, but I can tell you that already our two credit unions have each made a few solar loans,” she said late last year.
Humphrey emphasized again the need for having a central location for consumers to get their solar energy answers.
“Studies show that most of the consumers who choose solar energy for their homes are highly educated,” she said. “So they tend to ask a lot of questions and want a great deal of detail. They want to be very informed consumers when it comes to knowing their clean energy options.”
Rates for solar loans through CU Green are the credit union’s fixed home equity rate minus 25 basis points. Humphrey said that a typical solar system, for an 1,800-square-foot home costs about $21,000. CU Green offers 100% financing and terms of five, 10 and 15 years.
“Consumers can also re-amortize their loans once they get their tax credits,” Humphrey noted.