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Firm aiming to make solar power a bargain

MIDDLEBURY — A new Waterbury Center-based company is trying to bring the promise of solar-powered electric generation to Addison County at a price that Vermonters can afford.
A new Waterbury Center-based company called Suncommon announced on Tuesday that it will soon begin installing solar electric systems on Addison County homes with no up-front cost and for monthly rates that can be less than what the customers are paying for conventional electricity.
Suncommon directors, flanked by state and local officials, announced this pitch at a press conference at the Middlebury village green gazebo. Bob McNary, Ferrisburgh’s energy coordinator, was among those who lobbied to bring Suncommon into the county.
“I believe this is the wave of the future,” said McNary, who himself has signed up as a customer.
Established last March, Suncommon grew out of a pilot project at Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), the state’s largest consumer and environmental advocacy organization. Initially operating as “VPIRG Energy,” the initiative combined community organizing with a business approach to make solar energy equipment more affordable to Vermonters, according to Dan Conant, Suncommon’s solar community organizer for Addison County.
Suncommon spun off from VPIRG earlier this year as a for-profit company under the leadership of co-presidents Duane Peterson and James Moore.
Here’s how Suncommon’s business plan works: The company first goes into counties to gauge interest in solar conversions and gathers as many prospective clients as possible to achieve an economy of scale to get the best price possible for volume purchases of residential solar panels from Suncommon’s California-based supplier, SunPower. Suncommon also taps into state and federal programs that support clean energy and provide tax breaks and other incentives to lower the cost of renewable energy, officials said.
Instead of having to spend $20,000 to $40,000 in up-front capital costs for solar equipment, Conant said Suncommon works out 20-year lease arrangements with clients, who are locked into a monthly payback that he said is less than, or equal to, what the household is paying for conventional electricity. That lease payback rate remains stable whereas electric utility rates will likely rise by at least the annual rate of inflation, according to Suncommon officials.
Suncommon works exclusively with two Vermont subcontractors, South-Burlington-based Peck Electric and Stowe-based Gristmill Builders.
Clients can renew their contracts at the 20-year term of the lease, or purchase the depreciated solar equipment. They can also purchase the equipment right at the outset, if they’d like, officials said.
Suncommon now does business in Chittenden, Washington and Addison counties, as well as in Stowe. To date, the company has sold or leased more than 160 solar electric systems in Chittenden and Washington counties, and has seen orders thus far for another 100 systems in Addison County, according to Conant. The company wants to ultimately offer service throughout the state.
“We got ourselves here as soon as we could,” Conant said of the company’s reaction to the demand for service in Addison County.
With that in mind, Suncommon will be holding around a dozen community forums in Addison County this month. Upcoming forums will take place at Ferrisburgh Central School at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 10; the Monkton Fire Station at 7 p.m. on Oct. 11; Bristol’s Holley Hall at 6 p.m. on Oct. 16 and Middlebury’s Ilsley Library at 6 p.m. on Oct. 18.
“Currently, fewer than 1 percent of homes across Addison County get their power from the sun,” Conant said. “We’re going to change that in the coming year.”
State Reps. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, lent their support to Suncommon’s arrival. Lanpher said it is an example of a series of renewable energy strides the state has made during the past 14 years. Those strides, she said, have included the advent of net metering in 1998, creation of the Efficiency Vermont nonprofit organization in 1999; creation of the Clean Energy Development Fund in 2005; and establishment of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) districts in 2011.
“This is our past work and I look forward to our future efforts,” Lanpher said.
“I can’t wait to get started and work to increase the use of solar power around our county as we do our part and continue on strengthening Vermont’s future.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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