As published in the Duxbury Clipper, March 2, 2016
Going Solar: Residents Share Stories of Savings
BY GRAEME GROOMBRIDGE CLIPPER REPORTER
Getting utility bills in the mail doesn’t tend to bring a smile to one’s face. But for homeowners with solar panels installed on their property, getting their electricity bill is now a much more sunny experience.
On February 25, the Duxbury Free Library and Sustainable Duxbury co-sponsored a free informational presentation on solar energy. The “Panel on Solar Panels” provided an opportunity to hear from Duxbury residents about what it’s like to install and own solar panels. Experts at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and EnergySage discussed the benefits and complexities of owning and installing solar systems.
Panel members and Duxbury residents James Kerkam, Jeanne Marie Pennvenne, and Pam Magnarelli spoke about their experiences.
For Kerkam, of 226 Washington Street, getting his bill “is like Christmas all over again…At our house, we’ve got a reversing meter. It’s great!” Kerkam showed one of his electrical bills from the previous year, saying that “there were three months where I paid nothing. And all the rest of them are very much reduced from what I normally pay. I have a 4,000 square foot house. My bill last month was about $40.”
Kerkam’s 21 panel, 6.3 kilowatt system is located on the roof of his garage and was installed by E2 Solar of Dennis in 2014 for a total of $27,000. Pennvenne, of 162 Oak Street, hired Alvin Hollis to install a ground mounted solar module on her property in 2009. The unit consists of 20 panels and cost $39,000. Magnarelli, of 45 Walker Road, has a 13 panel unit on the south-facing roof of her home and said that her system cost $36,000 in 2014.
Though the three residents each acknowledged the hefty cost of installation, they all agreed on two things: they’re happy to know they’re helping the environment and feel they made a wise investment. Magnarelli estimates that her system will pay for itself in roughly nine years from the date of installation.
Penvenne, whose groundmounted system saved the oldgrowth shade tree that covers her home, said “We know why we did this. We did this for our carbon footprint and for our grandchildren…For now, we’re just really happy we’re not paying electricity bills.”
There are incentives for solar panel owners that help to cover the cost of installation. Magnarelli got a $2,700 signing rebate, applied for a $1,700 dollar energy credit from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, got a tax credit for 30 percent of the cost when she filed her federal income taxes and received an additional $1,000 dollars back when she filed her state income taxes.
“After the first year, with the energy credits and the tax rebates, we were down to 55 percent of the original cost,” Magnarelli said.
Within that first year, Magnarelli generated three SRECs, or Solar Renewable Energy Credits, which “ended up giving us, in pocket, another $885 dollars,” she said.
Compared to the year prior to installation, Magnarelli’s household used $900 less in electricity. To further reduce costs and improve efficiency, she had a Mass Save energy audit and installed energy-efficient fixtures.
“We have not paid an electric bill since last April,” she said. “So we’ve had 11 months with no electric bill. We’re generating surpluses from April to November.”
By last November, Magnarelli had built up a credit with Eversource for about $275 dollars. Penvenne said that her first year experience mirrored that of Magnarelli’s, and that after all of her rebates, tax returns and credits, the cost of her system was down to $22,000. Similarly, her system regularly breaks even or generates a surplus of electricity.
In addtion to the three Duxbury homeowners, two people in the solar industry gave their perspectives. Andrew Belden, Director of Commonwealth Solar Programs for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, spoke about his organization and the in-depth information behind solar energy technology and Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage, explained how is company helps consumers with choosing a solar panel system.
“We’re a quasi-state agency in charge of developing a clean energy economy in Massachusetts,” said Belden. “We develop incentive programs that help grow the market. We make direct incentives to early-stage companies that are based in Massachusetts. We also make investments in clean energy infrastructure.”
Belden gave some statistics to illustrate the importance of the clean energy economy to Massachusetts.
“The solar energy market in Massachusetts is about $700 million per year, and there are currently around 42,000 solar systems in place in the Commonwealth. Last year, Massachusetts ranked fourth in the nation for the amount of solar systems installed, and there are approximately 15,000 individuals in our state employed in the solar energy field, second only to California,” Belden said. “Massachusetts really punches above its weight class in terms of solar.”
There are several types of technology that classify as ‘solar,’ but there are two that are prevalent in residential applications. There is solar hot water, a technology that’s been around for over 100 years. It works by using solar panels to heat tubes full of water which is then used to offset the need for electricity to make hot water. The other type is solar photovoltaic systems. This technology, developed in the 1950s and 1960s largely by NASA for use in space, is robust.
“Essentially,” Belden explained, it consists of “a wafer of silicone, which is what microchips are made out of, chemically treated so that when light hits it, it produces a current.”
That current can then be used to supply power to a home. But photovoltaic panels produce Direct Current, or DC power, and the majority of electricity supplied by the grid is Alternating Current, or AC power. Therefore, an inverter is needed to convert DC power to AC power, which can then be utilized to power appliances, etc.
“In Massachusetts, we have something called ‘net metering.’ So if you’re supplying that power to your home and you don’t have enough load in your home to use all that power, what you can do is actually export that power back to the grid,” Belden. The utility then compensates the homeowner for providing that power. That is a key part of what makes solar power so economical in this state. Another driver of the solar economy is the relatively high cost of electricity; it’s more efficient to generate power with solar than it is to buy it off of the grid from utilities.
“The utilities in Massachusetts are required to buy an increasing proportion of their power from renewable resources, and of those, a specific amount needs to come from solar that’s located within the Commonwealth,” Belden said about Solar Renewable Energy Certificates. Household solar systems not only create power, but also generate certificates, which utilities need to reach compliance requirements. Selling SRECs to utilities gives the homeowner significant value. They are traded on the market and are subject to supply and demand with pricing provided by the state. SRECs can be generated for ten years.
Aggarwal of EnergySage (a company in which the MCEC invested) explained that homeowners have three options when buying a solar system: pay with cash, which translates to more cash out of pocket, but much more savings in the long run; take out a loan to purchase it, which involves no down payment but decreases savings; or have a third party install and own it. However, that company will get most of the benefits and savings are lowest.
EnergySage is an online solar marketplace. Aggarwal described it as “as the Kayak or Expedia of solar energy.” According to Aggarwam, EnergySage helps homeowners and business owners shop online for solar energy equipment and compare contractors and their credentials and ratings. Once signed up, a member identifies the location of the installation, sets their preferences and discloses their current electrical payments. EnergySage takes care of the rest. Pre-screened solar installers will create a system according to the homeowner’s needs and then submit quotes to the user via the EnergySage platform.
EnergySage provides a full listing of each contractor’s information, ratings, reviews and warranties. The quality of the equipment is also listed.
“Not all solar panels and inverters are made the same,” Aggarwam said. “There are the Hondas of solar equipment, and there are the Mercedes of solar equipment. Our goal is to help you understand that.”
This event was the third that the Duxbury Free Library and Sustainable Duxbury have co-sponsored. Sustainable Duxbury meets once a month on the first Wednesday, September through June.