Upper Valley Goes Solar One House At A Time

Jun 16, 2014

A June 30 deadline is fast approaching for residents of several communities in the Upper Valley to get a good deal on switching to solar power for their homes.

A project called Solarize Upper Valley is hoping eventually to double solar energy use in Thetford and Strafford, Vermont and  Cornish and Lyme, New Hampshire. And the first phase of the project has nearly met that goal.

For example, there’s something new and shiny and black this week at Bob Hagan’s house in Thetford. Twenty of them, actually.

“These are panels we had put on the garage roof,” he says, standing at his front door looking upward. “Ideally it’s situated pretty much south, a little southwest, so we get a good portion of the sun during the day.

Hagan and his wife heat primarily with wood, but now all their electrical needs will be met by the sun. They had already switched their water heater to solar power a few years ago, but waited until now to take the next step.

“Prices came down, there were incentives, a rebate from the state and then tax credits from the federal government, so it was something at this point that made sense,” Hagan explains.

The Hagans are part of the Solarize Upper Valley project. It’s managed by a non-profit group called Vital Communities, which helps homeowners decide how to select  reputable installers willing to give group discounts. Hagan says he was guaranteed a maximum $19,000 for his installation. By the end of this month, that price will drop depending on the total number of customers. Hagan’s still trying to drum up more business in his neighborhood.

“Whether they move on it I don’t know—I’m not that good a salesman,” he chuckles.

But at Vital Communities, Energy Program Manager Sarah Simonds is selling the idea of solar power. She says one aim of Solarize Upper Valley is to de-mystify the conversion process by holding lots of information sessions, vetting installers and calculating financial benefits.

“All of those factors combined make Solarize a pretty effective model at making a lot of people be able to consider and go solar in a fairly short time frame,” Simonds says. “And hopefully all that buzz, so to speak, encourages others in their community and neighboring communities consider it even after the program deadline.”

Because the participating installers spend less on recruiting customers, they pass those savings along to the customers. Each signs a separate contract, so Simonds won’t know until July how deep those discounts have been, on average.

“What we’ve seen so far is that each individual installer has been giving us a discount in the 10 to 40 cent range below their average cost per watt, which is fairly substantial if you think of it in the course of a five kilowatt system,” she says.

That could add up to a savings of  several thousand dollars in installation costs for each home.

The Upper Valley is not the only region trying to solarize one household at a time.  Waterbury has a similar program, and so do some Windham county towns. These programs differ from solar arrays built by utilities like Green Mountain Power in partnership with state or local governments.

Many of those projects do not necessarily return the energy to local residents, and the installers or developers can sell renewable energy credits out-of-state. While utilities say those large-scale projects will lead to lower energy bills for all ratepayers.  Kevin Jones, deputy director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, is not a big fan of that approach.

“Those projects are designed to actually sell their solar energy outside the state of Vermont," Jones said. "So one of my big concerns with these larger scale state-run standard-offer projects is that they actually are increasing Vermont’s carbon footprint."

That is, if the credits are sold to out-of state-polluters. But Jones says small scale residential programs like Solarize Vermont are a great way to wean more homes off fossil fuels, and reap rewards directly for the homeowners willing to make that initial investment. With Solarize Upper Valley, about 50 homes have switched to sun power, with more likely to follow before the end of this month.