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Northampton joins state program to help homeowners, small businesses buy solar systems

That’s because the city has been accepted as one of 10 communities to participate in the latest round of Solarize Massachusetts, a state program that helps homeowners buy small-scale solar photovoltaic systems at a discounted price.

Under the program, the city will work with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the state Department of Energy Resources to select one installer who would provide specific prices for solar panel installation in a bulk-buy format.

Susan Lantz, a Northampton resident and member of a solarize coach team that will shepherd the project, said the group has tremendous local support and is eager to get started. “It’s really an excellent program the state has initiated and I commend them for what they are doing,” Lantz said.

The program can lower the cost of installing solar systems and save customers money on their electricity bills, depending on how many residents and business contract for solar. Prices would be tiered and would drop as more residents and businesses sign contracts.

During the 2012 Solarize Mass program, customers were able to purchase solar electricity systems for 20 percent less than the statewide average price at the beginning of the program, according to a state press release. 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.

Lantz said she believes now is the perfect time to install solar because of the Solarize Mass program and associated incentives. The city’s energy and sustainability officer agrees.

“This is a great opportunity to get lower prices on solar in a community that has a track record of encouraging conservation and use of alternative and renewable energy sources,” Christopher Mason said.

The state agencies will work with Mason and the solarize team to select a designated installer through a competitive bidding process. The Clean Energy Center will host a pair of forums this spring to introduce the program to the community and give the public a chance to meet the selected installer, spokesman Matt Kakley said.

Two options

Homeowners and small businesses will be able to get a solar array either by buying it from the installer or leasing it with no upfront cost. Lantz said this is a key point for people worried about financing the project.

“There is an option for everybody,” she said. “They don’t have to have the huge outlay of cash at once.”

Customers with suitable sites for a solar project can contract with the installer. That person or business will help individuals apply for rebates and be responsible for completing the installation.

The program garnered support from some 670 residents in a survey this year, most of whom overwhelmingly urged the city to move ahead with its application to be included in the program. “This survey confirmed what was already suspected — that a high number of Northamptonites would be sincerely interested in producing their own renewable energy,” Mason said.

Solarize Massachusetts will enable the city to expand its long-held desire to achieve a higher level of energy efficiency throughout the community. The city has taken the lead in this area, installing more than 130 kilowatts of photovoltaic systems at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, JFK Middle School, Northampton High School and the James House Adult Learning Center.

Several other residents have been approved for solar installations in the last few years, but the state program will make it more affordable for others to join.

The Clean Energy Center helps lower prices by handling marketing, education and other outreach and by negotiating the bulk-buy process, both of which lower costs for installers and consumers.

The Solarize Massachusetts program began in 2011 on a pilot basis with four communities, including Hatfield. Another 17 communities joined last year, including Montague.

The program led to 42 signed contracts for solar arrays in Montague, compared to fewer than 10 completed solar projects in the town prior to the Solarize Mass program. Hatfield saw similar results, with 22 installed projects, up from five prior to the Solarize Mass program.

In addition to Northampton, the other western Massachusetts communities chosen for the first of two rounds this year are Lee and Williamstown, both in Berkshire County.

The program was developed as part of Gov. Deval Patrick’s initiative to install 250 megawatts of solar capacity in Massachusetts by 2017. As a result of the Solarize Mass program and other incentives, 243 megawatts of solar electricity have been installed to date, which would power 38,000 homes for a year, the state said.

Lantz said residents who want to participate in the program, want more information or would like to volunteer can email solarizenorthampton@gmail.com.

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