State pushing bulk solar sales

Jul 6, 2011 –
Boston

State officials are trying to drive down the cost of solar power for homeowners and small businesses by bringing potential buyers together with sellers in a more cost-efficient manner.
Right now, solar installers have to make their pitch house by house. The state’s new program, called Solarize Massa­chu­setts, aims to round up a bunch of potential customers in a town and let a solar installer make a presentation to all of them at once. It’s a little like the website Groupon, where merchants offer a price discount to attract a large volume of customers.
Patrick Cloney, the executive director of the Massa­chu­setts Clean Energy Center, says part of the idea behind the pilot program was born from his experience in the construction business, where he would perform work on one house in a neighborhood, and then neighbors would come to him asking for work to be done on their homes.
“I always thought that was an interesting phenomenon. It gave residents a level of comfort that, if we were doing a good job on one house, we’d do a good job on all the rest,” says Cloney in a phone interview.
The Clean Energy Center is testing the concept this summer in Scituate, Winchester, Hatfield, and Harvard, four of the state’s 53 green communities, a state designation for cities and towns that have met a set of regulatory and energy use criteria.
Cloney says the “solar integrators,” or companies that will install the solar photovoltaic systems, agreed to a tiered pricing model where the cost of the system to homeowners will depend on how many people sign up. He says participants can expect to see a base savings of 8 to 10 percent off the current cost of a solar photovoltaic system, which is about $6 per watt, or $30,000 for a five-kilowatt system.  If more people participate, savings could rise to between 18 and 33 percent, he says.
A homeowner’s energy savings will depend on a number of factors, including whether he purchases the system outright or leases it from the company doing the installation. With existing tax credits and other incentives available for installing solar, Cloney says a system typically will pay for itself within six to seven years. Assuming the industry-standard 20-year warranty on a solar photovoltaic system, Cloney says a homeowner could pay off the system and end up generating electricity at no cost for about 14 years. The payoff will be faster with the savings from the Solarize Massachusetts effort, he says.
Alteris Renewables, a Connecticut-based company whose website boasts the tagline “The sun will never announce a rate hike,” was chosen as the solar integrator for Win­chester and Hatfield. Hudson-based New England Breeze will be the integrator for the town of Harvard and New Bedford-based Munro Distributing will provide the services for Scituate.
The Solarize program is part of an ambitious effort by the Patrick administration to install 250 megawatts of solar energy by 2017. Massachusetts is expecting to have 85 megawatts installed by the end of this year.
To promote interest in the pilot, the Clean Energy Center provided the selected towns with small grants for marketing and promotion of meetings where residents can learn more about the program.
“Solar 101” community meetings were held in late May, with the purpose of educating residents about solar energy. Louellyn Lambros, a volunteer for Solarize Massa­chusetts in Scituate and member of an initiative called Sustainable Scituate, helped spread the word about the program in Scituate through flyers, newspaper announcements, and social media.
Lambros says interest is strong, with 143 people attending the May 23 “Solar 101” meeting in her town. “I have to say I was just so surprised that, practically without exception, there was just so much enthusiasm for solar energy, that the idea of it had become so mainstream,” says Lambros.
In Winchester, Dave Judelson, who serves as a liaison between Solarize Massachusetts and town nonprofit groups, says that there were about 120 people interested in getting the solar assessment done for their homes.
Kate Plourd, a spokeswoman for the Clean Energy Center, says residents were invited to “Solar 201” meetings in mid-June where they would hear from the chosen solar integrator in their area on costs and potential savings. At the Solar 201 meetings, residents would also be able to sign up for a site assessment to ensure that installing solar panels on their property is viable. Participants will be able to sign contracts for installation through Sept­em­ber, after which the pilot program ends.
Both Cloney and Plourd emphasized that the pilot’s focus on solar energy education is a way to build interest in harnessing the sun’s energy. “By teaching people and encouraging them to spread the word, we think that more people will learn and really understand how easy it is,” Plourd says.