Harvesting the sun, or how we ‘went solar’

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By Thursday, Oct 16 Environment  1 Comment
Honey Sharp
The array of 20 solar panels, installed this fall through the Solarize Great Barrington program, that supplies enough electricity for the author's Great Barrington home.

“There were 778 systems installed at the beginning of 2008. Today there are 15,762 systems installed across Massachusetts, a twenty-fold increase. And by 2013 … the Commonwealth was 4th in the US for new solar capacity.”

— The Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

Great Barrington — There have been a few times in my life where I’ve experienced a sense of belonging to a bigger movement. And I’m not referring to switching to the Paleo diet, grabbing the new iPhone 6 (although I couldn’t resist), gobbling kale leaves (although I’m hooked now), or trading in our old Jeep for a Prius. Remember Obama’s initiative: “Cash for Clunkers”?

No, it’s about joining others who are also doing their darndest for the health of the planet. This happened recently when I walked with over 300,000 at the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC. (For my account of the experience, click here.) A similar, almost cozy sense of “belonging” arose — and continues to, ever since my husband, David, and I decided last spring to “go solar.”

Granted, we’d been contemplating this for almost a decade. For a ton of reasons though we simply didn’t take the leap. “There’s not enough sun in the Northeast; our roof doesn’t perfectly face south — and besides, our farmhouse dates from the 18th century — how would THAT look?”; and perhaps most importantly: “It’s too expensive and really how costly is our monthly electrical bill now that we try to conserve more?” (That’s changing: a 37 percent increase is expected by November 1. Last year’s was over 18 percent.)

Aside from scratching our head about locating a professional and reliable solar contractor remained the nagging question: does it really make that much of a difference?

The solar panels, still i their packing, in the author's backyard.

The solar panels, still in their packing, in the author’s backyard.

Then, something happened. We got catapulted. Last April, an email appeared on my screen from Malcolm Fick, head of a citizens’ group, Solarize GB, announcing: “As we approach the half-way point, Solarize Great Barrington/Egremont has been a huge success. … We have the most contracts of any town in the state and that is factoring in cities and towns with a much larger population than ours.”

Wait a minute I wondered: Where do we stand in this? As I began to comprehend the program there was a beguiling incentive at play here. It included a 4-month deadline that would reap in extra financial perks for a select group of qualifying towns of the Commonwealth. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

While pondering that email, I vaguely remembered signing up for updates on “Solarize Massachusetts” at a Farmers’ Market the previous summer.

Now as the gray snow cover was melting and the days growing longer, I decided to investigate the solarize program launched by Gov. Deval Patrick and spearheaded locally by Malcolm Fick with the town’s Energy Committee as well as Juliette Haas of Egremont. Thanks to these two “solar coaches” — as they were referred to — much of the legwork had been done. This included vetting out contractors of which Real Goods Solar a k a RGS Energy, had been awarded the competitive bid among five applicants.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (Mass CEC) behind this program was another major player. As Fick explained to me recently, it had been a lengthy and complex process. Led by a dedicated team of volunteers, it involved meetings with town officials and the public and much more including, of course, red tape.

This effort, generating local interest and participation, allowed a few towns such as our own to participate in a “tiers system” with financial benefits. Aside from the 30 percent federal “Renewable Energy Credit” plus a state rebate, we would receive yet another perk. As it turned out, our two South County towns made it to tier 5, the highest level.

According to Fick: “Just at the half-way point we had the most contacts of any town in the program. I think we must have done a pretty good job of getting the word out and generating a great deal of early enthusiasm. After that half-way point, larger Massachusetts towns such as Amherst caught up and moved ahead of us. It’s still fair to say that we had the strongest per-capita response in the program.” Sounds more like a horse race.

Soon sitting with me on an early May day at our kitchen table was Leigh Anne Adams, from RGS Energy. While I was fumbling for our National Grid bill with data on our monthly kilowatt consumption, she described how RGS Energy, based in Colorado, sold the first photovoltaic panels in the United States back in 1978 when John Schaeffer founded what was to become Real Goods Solar. He also published “The Solar Living Source Book,” a milestone.

Leigh Anne Adams, formerly in marketing in NYC and now residing in Pittsfield, bears the title of one of the company’s “energy brokers.” She patiently walks potential customers through the installation process while offering detailed technical and financial information.

Although there was something of an intangible quality to “going solar,” I was reminded of buying a car — but one I couldn’t touch, let alone drive — or choosing the color. Like a car, though, we could choose to lease or purchase upfront. Unlike a car, though, were federal and state tax credits and rebates, including that local tier perk as well as a 25-year guarantee. How could you go wrong?

Work begins on preparing the site for the solar array.

Work begins on preparing the site for the solar array.

RGS Energy then assessed our property with Google Earth and other technology away above my head — literally. Back on ground we were soon walking the field out back with their technical representative who remained open to my own suggestions to preserve the view of our woods while not being right in our face.

Calculations showed that a free-standing structure with 20 photovoltaic panels would provide 100 percent energy for our electrical consumption. Sounded too good to be true. The hard part though — just as the sun was at its “peak performance,” was waiting… Perhaps too many people were signing up?

By September, trucks appeared on the scene while a huge excavator began digging a 400-foot long, 2-foot deep trench leading to our electrical panel and soon-to-come inverter. Soon a foundation for the array of panels was constructed all with cement being poured for the pillars and 12-foot tall steel rods. The PV panels, manufactured in Oregon (not China), were at last delivered.

The backhoe digs a trench for the cable connecting the solar array and the author's house.

The backhoe digs a trench for the cable connecting the solar array and the author’s house.

Back in the kitchen on an October day when the black/slate colored, shiny panels were being mounted, Adams recounted: “One of the most important things we do is work with our customers to determine how solar can best work for them. Every home tells a story and my job is to listen and understand that story so I can provide a path to solar that best fits their needs. Regardless of where the system goes, on the ground or on the roof, it’s what’s happening inside that’s going to help me tailor the system for a home. Because of this, no two systems are alike.”

How did this neck of South County ultimately do? “Around 500 people responded but many could simply not install a system due to poor southern exposure or shade from trees,” explained Malcolm Fick by phone recently. “I can’t even get a solar system at my house in town,” he added wistfully while noting that close to 90 were installed in our local area. “My hope is to one day see community solar farms here. There’s so much demand.”

At our end, all we’re waiting for now is for the town building inspector to approve the installation and for National Grid to pull the switch after we get a “Permission to Operate (PTO).” Then, as mandated by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, our utility will begin providing us with solar renewable energy credits (SRECs). We simply plan to open a bottle of champagne. We won’t break it on a photovoltaic panel either!

———————

While the official Solarize GB program may have expired, inquiries, assessments and installations are continuing.

For more information:

Leighanne.adams@rgsenergy.com

www.rgsenergy.com


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One Comment   Add Comment

  1. Laury epstein says:

    Imhad solar at my monterey house and loved it! Imfelt so energy-virtuous! But copper beech, the condominium wher i now live, doesnt permit them. Rather short-sighted, in my view and i’m sorry it is that way. You’ll love yours!

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