Solar explosion: The changing landscape of residential solar

  • Wright Builders has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mark Ledwell is a co-owner of Wright Builders, which has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Three of the heat pumps for a six-unit building constructed by Wright Builders at Village Hill in Northampton. Wright Builders co-owner Mark Ledwell says these units can pull heat from air in temperatures below zero. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Wright Builders has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mark Ledwell is a co-owner of Wright Builders which has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton, like the 6-unit Westwind building behind him. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Wright Builders has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Solosko and Jean Krogh own a net zero home that sells solar power back to the grid in the Easthampton Meadows neighborhood of Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eighteen of the 31 homes in Bob Solosko and Jean Krogh’s Easthampton Meadows neighborhood are using solar panels. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Solosko and Jean Krogh own a net zero home that sells solar power back to the grid in the Easthampton Meadows neighborhood of Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jean Krogh and Bob Solosko enjoy the efficiency of this wall-mounted minisplit heat pump on the first floor of their Easthampton home. Their net zero home, equipped with solar panels, sells power back to the grid. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Wright Builders has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • This wall-mounted minisplit heat pump cools and heats the first floor of Bob Solosko and Jean Krogh’s Easthampton home. Their net zero home, equipped with solar panels, sells power back to the grid. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Wright Builders has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mark Ledwell is a co-owner of Wright Builders, which has built many solar-ready homes at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/7/2017 9:22:20 PM

Not too long ago, installing a residential solar system was seen as an expensive, and often, cost prohibitive endeavor. Over the last few years, however, Massachusetts homeowners have been flocking to get solar panels up on their roofs and to a lesser extent set up in ground mounted systems.

I recently spoke with state and local officials and members of the solar industry, who explained why this trend is occurring and how it may be changing in the future. I also talked with residents who shared their experiences with solar power and the reasons they chose to have systems installed.

Residential solar boom

“The growth in residential solar has been explosive, particularly in the last two years,” Michael Judge, Renewable Energy Division Director for the Department of Energy Resources said, noting that the state now has over 65,000 residential solar arrays.

Local officials say that the number of homeowners choosing to install solar arrays in western Mass is in keeping with the statewide trend.

Northampton building commissioner Louis Hasbrouck said that between 1999 and 2016, there were 600 solar permit issued in Northampton, 400 of those were between 2014 and 2016.

“There has been a huge increase the number of solar arrays going on roofs,” said Jonathan Flagg, Easthampton building inspector. “I would say that 40 percent of the total permits we issue are for solar.”

Easthampton neighborhood a microcosm of the larger solar landscape

In 2013, The Homes at Easthampton Meadows were built as a net zero energy efficient community. The 31 single-family all electric solar ready homes with “super insulated” 12-inch thick walls and highly efficient mini split heating and cooling units, are 60 more energy efficient than a standard home.

When homeowners install a solar system, they have they ability to produce as much renewable energy as they consume or more, leaving them with a net zero, or net positive energy bill, and a carbon-free home.

Several homeowners installed their solar systems right away, while others chose to wait, predominantly due to financial constraints.

Easthampton Meadows residents Bob Solosko and his wife Jean Krogh purchased their large 9.8 kilowatt solar array in 2013. It not only powers their home but charges their Prius.

“From April through October we generate quite a bit more than we use,” said Solosko, who noted that they are planning to donate their excess power to a non-profit organization.

Of the 31 homes, 18 currently sport solar arrays with several having gone up last year and more owners planning to install this year.

So why the recent upsurge in residential solar?

According to Judge, the cost of installing residential solar today is less than 50 percent of what it was five to six years ago, making solar much more accessible to homeowners.

The price of a residential solar array will depend on the size of system, and the types of panels, racking systems, inverters and other materials that are used. With the average 6 kilowatt system, ballpark estimates can run from $16,000 to $30,000.

Inviting Incentives

At present, those costs can then be offset by several solar incentives including:

A Federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit of up to 30 percent of qualifying project costs.

A Massachusetts personal income tax credit for $1,000 or 15 percent of qualifying project costs, whichever is less.

Net Metering, which credits utility customers for excess power their solar system generates in any given month, and then applies that credit during to their bills during times when it is not generating as much electricity.

The Mass Solar Loan program, which offers homeowners low-interest loans for solar electric systems. The program offers additional incentives for households with annual incomes below certain thresholds who may be eligible to have the program pay a portion of their loan principal when the project is complete.

Solar Renewable Energy Credit Certificates. These provide homeowners with an income stream by allowing them to sell energy back to the utilities through certificates traded on the open market. For each megawatt-hour (1,000 kilowatt-hours) that a system generates, one SREC will be created. A solar panel system will generate SRECs for 10 years.

One Easthampton Meadows resident who wish to remain anonymous said her the original cost of the system 5.8 kilowatt solar system purchased last summer was $30,000, However, she qualified for a low-interest Mass Solar Loan and was also eligible to have that program pay $6,000 of the loan principal reducing the 10-year loan to $24,000.

In addition she is eligible for state and federal tax credits to further offset the price of the system.

“I think getting solar was a very good investment both environmentally and financially. We purchased our system in June, have had several utility bills where we owned nothing and we have already received about $750 in SRECs,” she said.

Disappearing SRECs hasten sales

The recent push to go solar may also be tied to the fact that the SREC II program is being replaced with the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program that will go into effect next year.

Under the SMART program, homeowners will receive fixed-price compensation that ties the value of the energy to incentive, unlike the market-based compensation for the SREC II program that is an additional revenue stream independent of the energy value.

Total compensation will also decline over time matching the declining cost of solar panels.

Judge said that this allows for cost predictability and will provide a great reduction in cost to ratepayers in the state.

The new program is expected to cut the annual cost of solar installations to electricity ratepayers from $400 million to $500 million to $200 million to $250 million.

Richie Bonney, project developer with the Burlington-based solar company RevoluSun, estimated that the financial incentives of the new program for the homeowner purchasing solar will also be cut to about half.

“That is why we are anticipating a rush in residential solar installations this year,” Bonney said. “If people are thinking about installing solar now is the time to do it.”

Still, Jon Child, Design sales team leader with the Greenfield based solar energy coop PV2 said that while incentives may decline, support from the state remains strong.

“I don’t think that the state is backing away from support for residential solar,” Child said. “State participation is very important to the solar industry and Massachusetts has been very good — we expect that to continue they just don’t have to give the same level of support, if project costs have fallen.”

Growing environmental concerns

While financial incentives are a major factor in residential solar development, peoples desire to reduce their carbon footprint is also a significant driver.

Cara Soifer and Peter Hanelin recently decided to lease a solar array for their home in Easthampton Meadows.

“We have been considering getting solar since we moved but we held off for budget reasons,” Soifer said. “But after the election I was just feeling like I had to do something to help take care of the planet and reduce our carbon footprint.”

Mark Ledwell co-owner of Wright Builders said his company has been building solar ready homes for the past 18 years and is currently involved in the energy efficient LEED Certified homes at Villiage Hill in Northampton.

“Solar is the fastest growing sector of our economy, I don’t believe that this or any other administration will be in a position to change that reality,” Ledwell said. “Generating your own energy is very attractive.”




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