Editorial: Northampton’s solar moment
GORDON DANIELS GORDON DANIELS Ogion Fulford from Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics of Greenfield installs solor photovoltaic panels on the roof of the builing at 100 University Drive. There will be over 400 solor panels including the hot water panels on the roof. Purchase photo reprints »
‘Solar power for the people.” That slogan describes the Solarize Massachusetts project, which aims to reduce the cost of sun-powered electricity for homeowners and small businesses. Northampton is among the 10 new communities approved for the state program, joining neighboring Hatfield, which was one of the first four communities in the commonwealth to pilot it. A total of 41 now participate.
Key features of Solarize Massachusetts are affordability, absence of bureaucratic middlemen and a proven track record.
Northampton has promoted green energy and energy efficiency. Tapping the sun for power is a big piece of that. The city is already generating 130 kilowatts through photovoltaic systems at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, JFK Middle School, Northampton High School and the James House Adult Learning Center.
The push to apply for the Solarize Massachusetts program also came from the people. Earlier this year, a survey of 670 residents garnered overwhelming support for the program.
According to the city’s energy and sustainability officer, Christopher Mason, “This survey confirmed what was already suspected — that a high number of Northamptonites would be sincerely interested in producing their own renewable energy.”
If that vote of support turns to action, it will bode well for all who participate since pricing is based on participation. The more homeowners and businesses sign on, the lower the cost for everyone.
To get the program rolling the city will work with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the state Department of Energy Resources to select a firm to supply and install solar panels at a discount. The installer will be chosen through competitive bidding.
The state’s Clean Energy Center is key to making the program go and keeping it affordable. It is funded by a charge on our electric bills, about 30 cents a month for the average residential user. Its job is to support and promote clean energy businesses and projects.
The Clean Energy Center will host a pair of forums this spring to introduce Solarize Mass. to Northampton and give the public a chance to meet the selected installation company. In addition to education, the Clean Energy Center will help with marketing and negotiating the bulk-buying of solar panels and other equipment to lower the cost for installers and consumers.
Once it is up and running, people interested in buying a system will work directly with the installation company to determine if they have a suitable location and whether buy or lease a system. The leasing option helps those worried about upfront costs.
The selected firm will install systems and help customers apply for rebates. Having a single point of purchase and installation will provide accountability and simplify the process for homeowners. In 2012, Solarize customers bought sun-powered electric systems for 20 percent less than when program started. An average system costs $20,000, with a payback period of between five and seven years, after federal and state tax credits are factored in.
Some homeowners and businesses have already installed solar systems. But based on Hatfield’s experience, by lowering costs and extending new purchasing options, Solarize Mass. will greatly expand solar arrays in the city. Hatfield had five solar installations before the program. It now has 22.
Across the commonwealth, Solarize has advanced Gov. Deval Patrick’s goal of installing 250 megawatts of solar capacity in Massachusetts by 2017. There are already 243 megawatts of solar electricity being generated, enough to power 38,000 homes for a year.
Kudos to Northampton civic leaders for embracing the goals of energy efficiency and for joining a program that will give more residents the opportunity to save money and benefit the environment.