Solar savings offered to county residents

ADDISON COUNTY — Energy specialists across Addison County, like Ferrisburgh Energy Committee Chairman Bob McNary, have waited years for something to make solar technology more accessible to their friends and neighbors. Now, McNary and others believe that the something has arrived in the form of a new deal that cuts the cost of a solar thermal hot water system in half for county residents.
“It blew me away. This is the golden egg I’ve been waiting for someone to lay for about five years … this will get the average person on board when they see that they can actually save money,” said McNary. “I do not see the downside and I can be pretty pessimistic sometimes. It’s a great product with a great financial package.” 
What McNary’s excited about is Solar Addison County, a new program organized by Vermont Public Interest Research Group  (VPIRG) and launched Tuesday.
By teaming up with Sunward, the solar hot water division of Vergennes-based Country Home Products; local installers like Bristol Electronics; and the Montpelier-based credit union VSECU; VPIRG is offering a solar hot water system suitable for a family of four with a price tag of $4,999, reduced from the regular price of a Sunward solar system of $10,296. VPIRG offers free site evaluations, installation of a roof-mounted system is included, and financing through a 10-year VSECU loan with a 4.99-percent interest rate, which works out to a payment of $52 a month.
The offer will be in effect until the end of 2011 and is aimed at both homeowners and businesses alike.
“VPIRG has done all the legwork, Sunward is willing to provide the product, and between the two of them they’ve been able to figure out how to make it affordable. What could be better than that?” asked Rep. Gregory Clark, R-Vergennes, at an unveiling of the program Tuesday at McNary’s home in Ferrisburgh.
Here’s how the costs break down:
•  Sunward is providing Addison County residents an 18-percent discount that brings the cost of a solar hot water system down from $10,296 to $8,427.
•  A 30-percent federal income tax credit knocks off an additional $2,528 and bumps the cost down to $5,899.
•  The state’s cash rebate on solar systems then knocks off $900, bringing the total cost of the project to $4,999.
•  In addition to the $52 a month that VPIRG estimates a customer would spend on loans, the organization also estimates a customer would spend approximately $7 a month on fuel — propane or electricity — to compensate for the system during the dark depths of winter. As VPIRG figures it, the hot water system will provide about 85 percent of a home’s hot water needs throughout the year and a furnace or electric heater would kick in the remaining 15 percent.
More information is at www.solaraddisoncounty.com.
But why would Sunward offer such a huge discount?
“Because VPIRG’s program has proved successful so far in other parts of the state, we’re able to commit to a lower price point than we could to people who don’t live in Addison County at this point in time,” said Sunward Sales Director Tom Hughes.
The previous VPIRG project had a significant impact in Montpelier and Sunward is willing to take the risk of lowering their prices in hopes of similar success in Addison County.
“We just wrapped up Solar Montpelier where over the previous decade there were 13 solar hot water systems installed. In just 3-and-a-half months, we added 65 more solar homes,” said VPIRG Co-Director Duane Peterson.
Compared to the $50 that a Dartmouth study estimates a household of four can spend on hot water each month, $59 might not seem like such a good deal. But taking into account the fact that the system would be paid off in 10 years and it is warrantied for 20 years, McNary thinks the deal is a no-brainer.
“This is not a 12- or 20-month thing, you’ve got to look years ahead. You’ve got to look at the value this is going to bring you over and over. This is a known entity where propane, electricity and fuel prices are not,” said McNary. “Moving forward, as the price of electricity and fuel oil continues to climb, this on your home site will make the value of your home much more exciting.”
Peterson put it in concrete terms.
“If you tell the potential buyer of your home that they’re going to save $50 a month on their home, that’s cash in their pocket and they understand that,” he said. “That’s $600 a year.”
Real estate appraiser William Benton of Vergennes said that savings was speculative at this point.
“That savings can be computed into a capital sum, but as an appraiser I’d like to see proof of that in the market,” he said.
If VPIRG’s estimates pan out, then a homeowner or business looking to stay put over the next 20 years would also profit. Assuming the cost of heating hot water using conventional methods remains stable at $50 a month, an individual using these means of hot water would spend $6,000 over 10 years and $12,000 over 20 years. VPIRG compares these numbers to $7,080 spent in the first 10 years of having the Sunward system purchased in the Addison County Solar program at $59 a month and $840 over the second 10 years after the VSECU loan is paid off.
In the end, an individual using a VSECU loan to finance this system would spend $7,920 over 20 years, which is more than $4,000 in savings over the conventional means of heating a home, VPIRG literature calculated.
The Sunward system is comprised of two 92-pound solar panels, a solar powered 20-watt pump and heat exchanger, a heat tank, and copper microtubing and flex pipe to tie it all together.
A food-grade antifreeze glycol mixture runs though the 64 feet of copper tubing in each panel where it collects heat beneath two sheets of black-painted aluminum. The glycol moves through the microtubing and into the heat exchanger that consists of 120 feet of very tightly wound copper tubing to provide an enormous amount of surface area in a small space to maximize thermal dynamic efficiency.
Cold water from the heat tank cycles out of the bottom and into the heat exchanger where heat from the glycol transfers to the water and pumps the now hot water back into the top of the heat tank. When the water is heated to a set temperature, the pump automatically turns off.
The heat tank then feeds into the building’s main hot water tank. If the temperature is below the target, which may happen on winter days, then the furnace will kick in to raise the temperature of the water.
McNary, who missed the boat on this VPIRG deal, has had a Sunward system since January. He had his system installed on a separate frame away from his home.
“With a Sunward unit, you get a (20-watt) photovoltaic panel, so this is not tied into the grid at all,” said McNary. “Secondly, the tubing can be 100 feet. So (the unit) can be away from the house and still be extremely efficient. Third, you’ve got this nifty frame for a garden shed … all I’ve got to do is just close it in and put a couple of windows and doors on it.”
The frame McNary referenced is one of three mounting options for a Sunward system — a timber frame that can be converted into a shed, a steel rack or a roof mount.
“We’ve installed six or seven of these and all of the systems have far exceeded what we expected and the customer expected,” said Dave Cobb, owner of Bristol Electronics.
“I’ve maintained right along it’s the economics,” said McNary. “If you prove the economics then the environmental portion will follow. The more of these (systems) you can get on the ground, the less fuel, propane and electricity you’ll use, which means that it will help the environment.”
For more information on this program, visit www.solaraddisoncounty.com.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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