Hampshire Council of Governments boosts solar installations with energy credit program

Last modified: Wednesday, April 02, 2014
Joseph J. Kearns says he has not sent a payment to the electric company for two years.

After nurturing a lifelong interest in alternative energy, the Middlefield resident installed solar panels at his 19th-century farmhouse in 2012.

And he earned over $1,100 from the energy his system produced in that first year.

Kearns, who is a councilor on the Hampshire Council of Governments, is enrolled in its Solar Renewable Energy Credit aggregation program, through which homeowners for the next decade can earn one credit for every 1,000-kilowatt hours of power that their systems generate. Each credit can be sold to local electricity brokers through auctions sponsored by the state Department of Energy Resources for about $250 to $300 each, said Eric Weiss, sustainability director for the council, which takes 4 percent from each sale to cover expenses.

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On average, he said, homeowners earn around $1,500 to $1,800 per year.

The program was established in late 2011 as a way to encourage homeowners to use solar energy and keep money earned from solar credits as local as possible, Weiss said. Now with 170 customers, he said the program is about three times more popular than it was in its first year.

“Through the Hampshire Council of Governments, we’re trying to be a facilitator of the development of more sustainable energy and economy in western Massachusetts,” he said.

“Right now, the solar energy market is sort of the busy market — the hot market — no pun intended,” Weiss added.

He said the council may explore the possibility of expanding into other sustainable energy sources, such as wind and water power, in the future.

Kearns, 71, has been a councilor on the Hampshire Council of Governments since 1988, and had been a teacher for 38 years before he retired in 2006. He taught woodworking in nine different school systems, the last 21 years in Westfield. In the mid-1970s, he developed and taught a course in alternative energy. The class involved finding ways to collect solar power using water and air, he said.

“I’ve had a continuing interest for a long period of time,” said Kearns.

He said he did not buy solar panels until 2012 because the installation costs have dropped substantially in recent years. He had his system installed for $29,000 by Pioneer Valley PhotoVoltaics, also called PV Squared, which has offices in Greenfield and Brattleboro, Vt. Tax credits and rebates brought that cost down to around $17,000, he noted. His aim is for the installation to pay for itself by the end of the 10-year-program.

There are 18 two-by-four-foot solar panels in a field behind his house — a two-story 2,000-square-foot colonial he shares with his wife, Marylouise — that power everything that connects to an electrical outlet. He said the only time they consume more energy than their system produces is during December, the month with the least natural light. Often, he said, their electric bills show a negative dollar amount that carries over into later months. The excess energy can also be sold to another customer, he added.

Local installers

Gregory Garrison, president of Northeast Solar, an installer in Hatfield, explained that a solar panel system is wired into a homeowner’s main electrical panel. Unlike conventional systems, the excess energy can be fed back to the grid, he added.

“The state has recognized that solar installations are key to future energy needs,” Garrison said.

PV Squared and Northeast Solar are among several local installers which have assisted the Council of Governments in developing its credit program, Weiss noted.

Garrison said that nearly 100 percent of his customers now participate in the program.

Nat Larson, of Amherst, learned of the credit program when Northeast Solar installed his panels in 2011. The 28 panels, each about 18 square feet, were placed on his roof because it faces south, he said.

Before the installation, he paid over $1,400 in electric bills each year, but now it is closer to $400, Larson said. He and his wife and their three children live in a 3,800-square-foot, two-story home .

Since joining the council’s credit program, Larson said he earned over $2,000 from selling his energy credits in the first year.

Larson, 51, describes himself as an environmentalist, and recently became a volunteer for Solarize Amherst, a local initiative of Solarize Massachusetts. That state program annually chooses several communities to have a designated installer for providing solar panel systems to residents at a negotiated price, he said.

Solarize Amherst chose Northeast Solar as the designated installer for the town this year. Larson said that while he had no role in that decision, he is pleased with it.

“As an environmentalist, I think it makes a lot of sense to use renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, and the state of Massachusetts makes it very attractive for people to make that choice,” Larson said.

Weiss said that due to the increased popularity of the council’s program, he expects participants to earn a total of around $285,000 for their solar credits in the state Department of Energy Resources-sponsored auction in July.

“That is what I am saying — the program has tripled and quadrupled,” he said. “We are really trying to provide this as a service to the region.”

Further information is available online at http://www.hampshirecog.org/programs-and-services/sustainability-services/srec-aggregation or by contacting Weiss at 584-1300 ext. 155 or eweiss@hampshirecog.org