hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2015


Banding together for solar power

Program helps homes, farms with details of financing and installation


Contributing writer


Dozens of households in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties are going solar this summer with the help of a program that cuts costs and takes the guesswork out of installing a solar system.
The Solarize program, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and launched in Portland, Ore., in 2009, is set up to rely on local people, usually volunteers, working with state or municipal support.

Now organizers in the two local counties are reaching out to homeowners and businesses, talking up the potential of solar power and trying to demystify the process of financing and installing solar systems.

“We’re trying to educate the public about the benefits of solar power and reduce the complexity,” explained Tina Carton, co-chairwoman of Solarize Saratoga. “We can walk people through that process.”

“Solar is affordable now,” added Rayna Caldwell, Solarize Saratoga’s other co-chairwoman. “Part of our campaign is to make it less confusing.”

In addition to education and outreach, organizers of Solarize campaigns typically choose suppliers of solar equipment and qualified installers. Because the campaigns sign up many people in a short time, they can arrange for bulk-purchase discounts from suppliers and installers. Costs decrease as more people sign up, and customers also are eligible for state and federal tax incentives.

Solarize campaigns have involved hundreds of communities, thousands of households, and have installed more than 8 megawatts of solar power nationally, according to the Solarize Saratoga Web site.

Supporters say switching more homes and businesses to solar energy will reduce the need for burning fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which supports Solarize programs as part of the state’s NY-Sun initiative, estimates that the typical residential or small-business photovoltaic system in upstate New York keeps about 2 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.

Solarize campaigns have been held all across New York. In addition to this year’s efforts in Rensselaer County and the Saratoga Springs area, other campaigns in the region are under way or being organized in Albany, Schenectady and southern Saratoga counties.

In Massachusetts, Solarize is overseen by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. Participating communities in the Berkshires were Lenox and Pittsfield in 2012 and Adams, Great Barrington, Egremont, Lee and Williamstown in 2013.

Vermont’s first Solarize campaign organized in the town of Putney in 2012. So far no community in Bennington or Rutland counties has signed on.


Buying in bulk
In Rensselaer County, Solarize Troy is a project of Transition Troy, a citizens group that is also working on lower-emission transportation, local food production, promoting cooperatives and eliminating waste. The group held its first Solarize campaign last year, bringing solar energy to more than 40 new customers.

Despite its name, the group is pursuing solar projects throughout the Rensselaer County and beyond.

“We’re not just about Troy,” said Jean Howard, one of the group’s organizers.

Solarize Troy will also work with people in adjacent counties, including Washington, she said.
The installer chosen for this year’s Solarize Troy campaign is Monolith Solar of East Greenbush.
Joshua Beach, Monolith’s director of residential sales, said that as of Aug. 21 the company had contracts with 26 new customers through the Rensselaer County program, all residential systems averaging 10 kilowatts. The average installation involves 36 solar panels.

The systems include photovoltaic panels on roofs, panels mounted on low poles (known as “ground mounts”), and a few top-of-pole mounts (an array of panels held on one tall pole). The top-of-pole mounts are popular with farmers, because the panels are safely above livestock and farm machinery, Beach explained.

Solar World, one of the first solar panel manufacturers, makes the panels in the United States, Beach said. Solarize Troy offers two models of inverters, one American and one German, which convert the panels’ direct current to the alternating current used in homes.

Enough customers have signed up to drop the total average cost of a 10-kilowatt system from $45,000 to $30,000, a 30 percent discount, Beach said. The maximum possible discount is 39 percent, or $27,500 per system.

Because installation prices through Solarize are so deeply discounted, Monolith doesn’t make much money on the program, Beach said. But he said the program provides other benefits for his company.

“Solarize will help raise awareness,” Beach said. “The more people who see it, the more will go solar. Solarize is doing what it’s supposed to do – kick-starting solar in the area.”

Monolith has hired seven or eight new workers this summer, in part because of the extra demand created by the Solarize program, he said.

In addition, the company is giving a $34,460 photovoltaic system to the Stephentown Public Library -- essentially for the cost of the equipment, for which the library received a $13,000 state grant.

“That’s a direct result of Solarize Troy,” Beach said.


Faster cost-recovery
Sam Stallone, who lives in Cohoes, got a photovoltaic system last October through Solarize Troy. The system went live on Nov. 24, he said.

Stallone works for the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany and heard about Solarize Troy from co-workers.

“I was thinking about solar before,” he said. “I work for an environmental agency. I want to walk the walk. Solar is affordable and doable.”

The installation, by Real Good Solar, went “fairly smoothly” after a few delays, Stallone said. The total cost of his ground-mount system was $11,900, but after rebates, discounts and tax incentives, he had to pay only $3,200 out of pocket. Because more people joined after him, the rebates went to a higher tier, and he received another $700 at the end of his contract.
“I’m impressed,” Stallone said. “The system should pay for itself in 38 to 41 months.”
He said his combined gas and electric bill dropped from $125 to $35 a month.

Stallone said believes he’s producing more electricity than he uses but that “I’m never going to get rid of my hookup fee” to his electric utility.

Stallone’s system has been practically maintenance-free, he said. Snow usually melts quickly off the tilted black panels. Because the lower edge of the panels is only 20 inches off the ground, he said he did have to go out a few times last winter to shovel around them.
“I’m very satisfied with the program at all levels,” Stallone said.

The system works well, the equipment has excellent warranties, and the system is paying for itself already, he said.

Howard said most people convert to solar electricity because they want to save money and protect the environment.

“The other big motivator should be resilience,” she said. “Seven kilowatts generated by solar is seven kilowatts that doesn’t have to be generated through another avenue.”

Increasing solar generation locally, she said, will reduce the justification for the controversial Northeast Direct Energy natural gas pipeline proposed for eastern New York and Massachusetts.
Howard said she is eager to bring farmers into the program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers its own incentives for agricultural solar projects. Freeing farms from reliance on outside energy sources “is at the heart of food security, if you ask me,” she said.

In Rensselaer County, the deadline for applications is Sept. 15 but may be moved to Sept. 30 if there’s enough demand, Howard said. Because the paperwork can be time-consuming, she recommends not waiting until the last minute.

‘Now is the time’

Solarize Saratoga kicked off on July 9. The program is sponsored by the city of Saratoga Springs, Sustainable Saratoga and Green Conscience Home through a grant from NYSERDA. The initiative is one of the projects of the city’s Climate Smart Task Force.

“We’re trying to reduce emissions any way we can and prepare for climate change,” Caldwell said. “Renewable energy creates new jobs. Solar power saves money.”

Last year, Sustainable Saratoga did a survey to gauge local interest in solar power and the Solarize program.

“There was lots of interest,” Carton said. “We thought Solarize would be an excellent program.”
Solarize Saratoga “chose two installers we trust,” Apex Solar Power of Queensbury (which is also the installer for Solarize Albany) and Hudson Solar of Rhinebeck, Caldwell said.
“Since we’re bringing them customers, they’re giving us a discount,” she explained.

As of late August, customers were receiving a discount of 30 percent from retail costs, Caldwell said.

Solarize has been doing outreach over the summer at the Saratoga farmers markets, and about 150 people, mostly homeowners, have asked for more information. Solarize Saratoga would like to see at least 60 solar installations in the city, but “we’re willing to go a bit outside to get the group rate,” Caldwell said.

As of late August, several installations were under way. The application deadline is Nov. 1, which should provide time for systems to be set up before the weather turns bad -- and allow property owners to get credit on their 2015 tax returns.

“The federal incentive for solar power goes away at the end of 2016,” Caldwell said. “If people have ever considered solar, now is the time.”

For more information about the Solarize program, see the following Web sites.
NY-Sun initiative: ny-sun.ny.gov/Get-Solar/Community-Solar.aspx
Solarize Troy: xtroy.org/solarize

Solarize Saratoga: www.solarizesaratoga.org
Massachusetts Clean Energy Center: www.masscec.com/solarizemass