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Home Improvement: Homeowners get solar panel options

ADDISON COUNTY — Spring is in the air, the days are getting longer and for some homes and businesses, the increased sun exposure may mean more than starting gardens, wearing shorts and slathering on SPF-65.
A growing number of homeowners around Addison County are considering putting photovoltaic solar panels on their rooftops or in their yards, which until recently constituted a substantial up-front investment — from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the home and the location.
“Just a few years ago, across the country and in Vermont, the vast majority of homeowners who transitioned to solar financed it themselves,” said Andrew Savage, a spokesman for AllEarth Renewables, a manufacturer of solar collectors based in Williston.
But AllEarth and other companies like the Acorn Renewable Energy Co-op and SunCommon, among others, have recently launched financing initiatives designed to ease the burden on homeowners interested in transitioning to solar electricity. The goal is to make the cost manageable and non-prohibitive, since the demand for solar energy is high at the moment.
With rising electricity costs, many believe that solar energy is a smart long-term investment, and many who were concerned about the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels have been eager to transition to affordable clean energy.
To make the transition, some basics are required, explained Greg Pahl, an Acorn Energy official in Middlebury and author of several books on energy including 2012’s “Power From the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects.”
“The first question is whether the house is well oriented for solar,” Pahl said. “There can’t be trees or other buildings that would shade the panels.”
The second question is how best to finance the transition. Choosing a plan and a company to help with the move to solar power can be confusing. All common-sense home improvement practices, like investigating several options and carefully reviewing contracts, should be exercised with solar.
Experts agree that the solar market has done a complete 180-degree turn in the past few years. Whereas a few years ago, Savage estimated, roughly 80 percent of homeowners nationwide moving to solar were financing their installation up front, now that percentage of homeowners are leasing panels instead of buying outright, he said.
Luckily for Addison County residents, several financing options are available from local companies.
The Acorn Energy Co-op boasts of a new owner-financing program for its members, in partnership with the National Bank of Middlebury, which will provide home-equity loans designed to be paid off within 15 years. The photovoltaic (PV) panels are installed by Brandon-based Green Earth Energy.
“The electricity generated by the new solar PV system in excess of your home’s needs will be fed into the electric grid, causing the electric meter to spin backwards and generating a credit on the electric bill equal to the regular energy billing rate plus a premium of 6 cents per kilowatt hour,” the company explained in a press release. “At night, when the sun isn’t shining, the home will draw electricity back from the grid reducing the credit generated by the PV system. The idea is to generate as much electricity as the home uses over a year’s time to reduce the amount paid to the utility for electricity as close to zero as possible.”
AllEarth Renewables is taking a different tack. Savage said his company offers a plan in which homeowners have no upfront costs and monthly payments targeted to be around the price of the current electricity bill.
The company says its residential lease is “unique in the state by offering a no-cost lease for homeowners to net meter with solar at or below their electric rates and be given the opportunity to fully own the system at a significantly reduced cost after seven years.”
Savage added that AllEarth Renewables — whose customers include Middlebury College and Stark Mountain Woodworking in New Haven — is proud to use only Vermont-manufactured products.
“That’s exciting for Vermonters, to buy a Vermont product and to be investing in solar,” he said.
Waterbury-based SunCommon in December launched a campaign called “1,000 Panels in 100 Days” with the aim of increasing the number of solar electricity panels in Addison County by 50 percent within three months. Addison County met that challenge in only two months.
The company offered a 20-year lease of PV panels, which lowered the cost of the point of entry for customers.
Dan Conant, a solar organizer with SunCommon, explained, “At SunCommon, we’re committed to helping Vermonters make the switch to solar power without upfront cost and for no more than a homeowner is currently spending monthly on utility power.”
According to Damon Lane, a senior analyst at Efficiency Vermont, many homeowners are most concerned about having reasonable month-to-month payments for electricity and PV systems, but buying outright can pay off in the long-term. He said this is especially true given state incentives and the federal government’s 30 percent tax credit.
Savage pointed out that the solar companies get the tax credits when homeowners lease from them.
But Lane adds that regardless of how the transition occurs, now may be the best time to take advantage of state and federal incentives.
“I wouldn’t plan on incentives going up,” Lane said. “We’ll be lucky if they stick around.”
“Most solar companies can guide homeowners through incentives,” added Pahl. “(At Acorn) we try to make it as easy as possible for the homeowner to move forward with the project.”
Jon Satz, who owns Woods Market Garden in Brandon, has found his transition to solar pretty straightforward. He signed a deal with AllEarth Renewables — in partnership with Green Lantern Capital, National Life and  Green Mountain Power — to bring solar power to the Route 7 market where Satz also lives on site with his wife and son.
AllEarth installed several solar panels mounted on trackers that follow the sun across the sky during the day to maximize production of electricity at the end of December.
“They paid for the install,” Satz said. “We didn’t put in a dime.”
The panels have an output of 56 kW, with an estimated annual output of 78,000 kWh.
Satz gets a little discount on his electricity bills and has the option to buy the solar panels at the end of a six-year agreement. AllEarth gets a revenue stream from the tax credits and a potential sale at the end of the contract.
Satz is sent a bill each month for one-twelfth of his annual average electricity bill. The bill also shows his actual usage at 19.5 cents per kWh, and a credit of 6 cents per kWh. At the end of the year, if there is a mismatch between what he was billed and what he owed, he and the utility settle the account. He said the going rate for electricity as he understands it is 14 cents per kWh, which means he is getting a half-cent per kWh break.
But the big payoff will come once he owns the system and is getting the full benefit of the electricity it produces. At that point, Satz hopes, he won’t have to pay for much or any of his electricity. This will be particularly important in the summer when his business draws more power — conveniently summer is also when the panels produce more electricity.
“It’s all about getting a delayed return,” Satz said. “It makes sense for me because I’m going to be around for a long time.”

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