On a hill above Gene Kistler’s home in Fayette County, a slight hum can be heard from solar panels.

Likening the panels to magic, Kistler explains that he installed the panels in the winter of 2015.

“The fact is they’re making electricity with no impact,” Kistler said.

The Fayette County businessman installed the panels after being inspired by a solar co-op that helped install a half dozen residential projects in the New and Gauley rivers area.

The co-op was the brainchild of what is now known as Solar United Neighbors of West Virginia, a Mountain State chapter of a national organization that has chapters in multiple states that aim at increasing solar power usage and educating the public about solar.

By setting up co-ops, Solar United Neighbors help set up a buying club that allows members to leverage group numbers for a better solar unit and install price.

Along the road, Solar United Neighbors also acts as a mentor and advocate, as well as measuring an interested person’s roof remotely using remote mapping software.

Autumn Long, the program director for the West Virginia chapter, said that through a co-op, members are better represented when making the investment in solar.

“Everyone gets the same base pricing, they know it’s competitive through this open process and I think it really helps give people confidence in their investment,” Long said.

According to Long, her organization has helped facilitate 18 solar co-ops in the state, and the time seemed right to canvass the New River and Gauley River areas again.

“It’s been a few years and it seemed that the area of the state and the local communities there maintain an interest in solar,” Long said. “We figured it was time to come back to the area and help some more people navigate the process.”

While advocating the benefits of solar power, Long did recognize the initial investment in materials and install can be a steep price for many West Virginians, though she argued that over the long run, it remains a good investment.

“Solar is a really good investment and it more than pays for itself,” Long said. “It pays for itself many times over the lifetime of the system because it offsets your electric bill, but it’s still a significant upfront investment.”

According to Long, a typical upfront residential solar array would cost a homeowner in the ballpark of $15,000. Homeowners would, however, receive a 30 percent federal tax credit after the install.

Long said that while still expensive, prices have come down in the recent past. Kistler also spoke about the increasing affordability of solar because of prices dropping on materials and an increase in installers.

“The market is speaking,” Kistler said of increasing accessibility and better pricing. “That’s the main thing — let the market just do its thing.”

While Kistler’s initial investment was substantial, he estimates that his solar install will pay for itself through electricity savings and through extra electricity he produces being sold back into the power grid.

Though he has heard from naysayers, Kistler displayed a few years of electric bills. The majority showed a minimum payment of $8 a month, the cost to be hooked into the electric grid.

Along with economic benefit, the Fayette County man cited environmental concerns as another reason for making the switch.

“The fact that it just sits there and makes electricity — it doesn’t smoke, it doesn’t stink and doesn’t mess anything up.”

Along with residential use, Kistler said he hopes for larger solar projects in the state, possibly using old mine sites as prime locations for solar.

While adding that in the near future energy will come from multiple sources, Kistler said that solar offers a good option and could be used to draw in large corporations that care where they get their electricity from.

“As time goes on, hopefully we will use more and more energy sources that don’t cause the destructive impacts that we’ve struggled with,” Kistler said.

According to Long, along with residential installs, her organization can help small businesses with available loans and grants available for business installs.

Along with businesses, Long said she has produced materials available to home builders and is hopeful that she will be able to attend regional trade shows and real estate industry events this year.

“Building a new home with solar, you’re going to cut down on some of the costs associated with retrofitting an existing home for solar,” Long said. “I would love to see more homebuilders thinking about it as they are putting up those houses.”

More information about Solar United Neighbors of West Virginia can be found at solarunitedneighbors.org/westvirginia.

-- Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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