Neighbor to Neighbor: Co-op members help homeowners realize their solar energy dreams

Monday, December 30, 2013
SOUTHAMPTON — It was cold Dec. 19 as four bundled-up men worked on and around a scaffold on the side of a home at 4 Coleman Road. But it was sunny, and that’s exactly what the solar-energy enthusiasts were hoping for.

“He’ll have solar hot air before the day’s over,” Lark Thwing of Hawley said while the crew worked. He was referring to homeowner Christopher Bowen, who was part of the crew.

The men worked for most of the day to install two 7½-foot-by-32-inch solar panels on the side of Bowen’s house. The panels heat air that is then circulated into the home, which Bowen hopes will cut his energy costs substantially.

The solar hot air system is one of the easiest kinds of solar systems to install, Bowen said. But as he looks forward to installing photovoltaic panels in January and a solar hot water system in 2015, he said the key to making it happen is Co-op Power’s Neighbor to Neighbor Program.

Co-op Power, a Hatfield-based regional sustainable energy cooperative, offers its 455 members discounts from 10 to 25 percent on solar installations and other equipment. Members can either hire a contractor to install the equipment or, through the Neighbor to Neighbor Program, get help installing the systems from other members as long as they pledge to help on four other installations.

The co-op also uses fees from its members to support community energy projects, such as the vegetable-oil-fueled Northeast Biodiesel plant it is building in Greenfield. But by far the busiest part of Co-op Power is the Energy Efficiency Services program for homes and businesses. The team of workers travels around western Massachusetts, making homes more efficient by sealing cracks, adding insulation and replacing lighting with low-energy alternatives, among other things.

“They probably do 30 to 40 homes a week,” Thwing said.

Welcome help

Bowen got help from Thwing, Scott Reed of Sunderland and Timothy Holcomb of Amherst. Holcomb does outreach and promotional work for the co-op.

Thwing was the only one who had installed a solar hot air system before. He put one on a rental property he owns in Hawley. Compared to solar hot water systems, the hot air system is a breeze to install and a lot more affordable, he said. While a solar hot water system will cost upwards of $8,000, the solar hot air panels cost Bowen $3,400.

The co-op has installed 30 to 40 hot water systems in the last five years, but only two hot air systems. “People don’t understand this one as much,” Thwing said.

Holcomb said the hot air system also may not be as popular because, rather than being an alternative to a conventional heating system, it complements it.

“As consumers, we tend to look for one answer to our energy needs, but it’s an integrated thing,” he said. “Every piece does a bit to reduce our energy consumption.”

To install Bowen’s solar hot air system, the co-op members attached two panels to the south-facing outside wall of the house with brackets and cut two holes through the wall underneath the panel.

Unlike most solar panels, these panels are several inches thick because there is a sealed empty space behind the panes. The sun heats the air in the space until it reaches 130 degrees, at which point fans turn on to pump the hot air into the home through one of the holes and to draw more air from the home through the other hole. The fan stops when the temperature in the space falls to 90 degrees and then the air starts to warm up again from the sunlight. The fans can be powered by an attached one-square-foot photovoltaic panel or by traditional electricity.

Thwing installed a similar system mostly by himself on a house he owns and rents out during the summer. “I use it to maintain the temperature of the house above freezing and it works great,” he said.

His house has two 600-square-foot floors “and on a sunny day in winter it can raise the temperature by 15 or 20 degrees” on its own, he said. With some additional heat coming from an infrared heater set to 52 degrees, the propane furnace set at 50 degrees almost never turns on, he said.

“Before, I would spend $300 to $400 per month to heat it. Now I pay $600 all year long,” he said.

Thwing, who has been with the co-op since its beginning in 2004, is experienced in installations and serves as one of the co-op’s team leaders, meaning he helps guide volunteers on solar installation projects. His passion for the projects means he has helped out on at least 20 solar hot water installations in the Neighbor to Neighbor Program.

Holcomb said the co-op never has a problem getting people to volunteer for installations.

“A lot of people do it just to learn about all the components. There’s a lot of expertise in the co-op, so it’s a great learning experience,” he said. “We make it easy for people by providing the expertise and the help.”

A solar dream

Bowen said he has been interested in solar energy ever since he was a teenager.

“When I bought my house in 1986, one of the features I loved was the south-facing roof” that was perfect for solar panels, he said.

Now, 27 years later, he is making that dream come true. Since turning 59½ this month, he has been able to draw on his retirement funds without penalty, and is investing it in something he is passionate about.

It started in October, when he joined the co-op and hired the Energy Efficiency Services workers to spray insulation into his attic. The Mass Save Energy Program, sponsored by state utilities and energy efficiency service providers, covered 75 percent of the cost up to $2,000, so he paid $400.

He made a plan for home solar energy projects and started with the simplest one — the solar hot air system. In January, a company called First Sun Solar — recommended by the co-op’s working group — is scheduled to install a 5-kilowatt photovoltaic system that will produce electricity. In 2015, he plans to put in a solar hot water system.

Bowen is a former mechanical engineer who was laid off from Berry Products in Easthampton. He is now retired and lives with his wife, Darlene, and their 12-year-old daughter, Rosa.

He said he thinks solarizing his home will not only help his family save on energy costs, but also allow him to put fewer dollars in the pockets of oil and gas corporations whose actions he does not support. Instead, he can support sustainable energy and other members like himself.

“This is my vote,” he said. “This is a very happy day.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.