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Homeowners join forces to save on solar panels

Group buying with One Block Off the Grid can drive down solar panels' upfront costs.

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Green energy can save you money over time, but solar panels and other options often require a huge upfront investment. You might choose to convert just to boost your green credentials. That can have its own value. But how long until that initial cost begins to translate to real savings – to that other kind of green?

This tricky equation scared Ed Lortz away at first. The retired maritime engineer investigated putting solar panels on his San Francisco house for months before eventually giving up. The cost was too high. And among the six contractors that he compared in 2008, none seemed to offer the very latest technology.

"I liked the idea of solar," says Mr. Lortz. "I was thinking about the future, thinking about where electric rates are going. It was another area where I could reduce my utility cost and be green." But until this summer, those two goals simply wouldn't merge.

The breakthrough came in June, when Lortz attended a seminar for One Block Off the Grid. To help average people ease into a greener future, this San Francisco start-up brings together groups of homeowners interested in solar panels. Once 1BOG hits a critical mass within a certain city, it negotiates a discounted bulk rate with contractors.

"We want people to know that there are pockets of the United States where solar isn't just for rich environmentalists," says Dave Llorens, chief executive officer and founder of 1BOG. "We want to create a rocket booster for communities" that can help people pool together and satisfy their conscience while also saving money.

So far, 1BOG has overseen 1,000 installations in eight states, and 40,000 people have signed up for information on the group's website, 1bog.org.

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