March 30, 2011

At its members' request and in the interest of becoming more environmentally responsible, Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union in Berkeley, Calif. ($80 million in assets), is installing a 29.7 kilowatt DC photovoltaic solar system that's expected to meet 65% to 75% of the credit union's needs. Although the past couple of weeks haven't been sunny, by the time the system goes live in mid-April in this Mediterranean climate, it is hoped that the spring sunshine will kick in and provide a major source of power.

Solar energy used to be prohibitively expensive. But according to president and CEO Gary Bell, costs are coming down. "For our installation, the overall cost is $150,000 and we got a 30% rebate from a state energy program," he says. "We expect to be break even in five to seven years." One advantage of solar energy is that its cost is stable (there are maintenance costs to cleaning and caring for the equipment), making the credit union immune to oil price increases and electric company rate increases. And at times when the credit union's solar system generates more energy than it uses, the local power company will pay for the excess.

What Bell likes most of all about going solar, however, is the aspect of being environmentally friendly. In keeping with Berkeley's history of social activism, "Many of our members keep deposits here because they're environmentally or socially responsible, and that's the way we operate," he says.

The credit union is also making something of a business out of environmental friendliness. Its Green Awards checking account is currently paying 3.01% interest and refunds ATM fees to the customer's account. It is developing green loans with lower rates to members who want to remodel their home and install energy efficient windows, for instance, but can't see how to pay for it.

Local vendor Sun Light & Power is installing the 108 Suntech 275 solar panels on the roof of the credit union's headquarters; the system is expected to produce at least 42,028 kilowatt hours a year, enough to power four homes.

The credit union tries to set a green example for its members. In its lobby it has an energy efficiency display that informs members about how they can be environmentally responsible. It holds workshops in its lobby about what's involved in solar projects. The credit union uses indirect sunlight and recessed lighting to keep its energy use down and it's looking into going paperless with the use of a document imaging system.

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