Milford Daily News: Is the cost of going solar getting lighter?

February 7, 2010
By David Riley

Customers come to Mike Kelley hoping solar panels will put a dent in their power bills, but sometimes the initial price tag rains on the idea.

“It is a big upfront cost,” said Kelley, whose business, Mass Renewables in Medway, installs photovoltaic systems and other solar devices. “You’re looking at maybe 10 years to get your return on investment.”

Some renewable energy businesses are hoping state legislation will allow towns and cities to help homeowners finance costly energy efficiency projects, making cleaner technology more accessible to average residents.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, would let towns opt to create financing programs for home energy improvements.

Municipalities could bond and loan the costs of such projects to homeowners, who would pay off the debt over time in payments added to their property tax bills. Meanwhile, towns would hold a lien on their homes.

The mechanism is similar to the way municipalities and homeowners finance the cost for residents to hook up to municipal sewer systems, Eldridge said. It’s also modeled after programs in other states like California and New Mexico, and leaves it up to towns to decide whether to participate, he said.

“It’s not a cost to the town, but it’s a way to finance more solar panels upfront so families can start saving money now on their heating bills,” Eldridge said Thursday.

The bill is also sponsored by Sen. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Rep. Matthew C. Patrick, D-Falmouth.

However, Eldridge said he hopes to see the legislation approved sooner than it might be as a stand-alone bill by including it in a municipal relief package the Senate is crafting. That legislation is now before the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee, of which Eldridge is chairman.

Some details of the energy proposal, such as a provision saying voters in a town would have to opt to establish a “clean energy assessment district” for such projects, may be simplified in the final version, Eldridge said.

“We’re looking for more flexible language to make it as easy as possible for the homeowner to access those funds,” he said.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his group still needs to look at the legislation and get feedback from town and city officials before taking a position.

“It certainly sounds like a proposal, as long as it’s a local option, that may interest many communities,” he said.

State Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, said like sewer betterment projects that are funded similarly, there is a public interest in the energy projects this legislation would help fund.

“I think that the climate change issue is also a public health, public safety issue,” she said.

Local renewable energy companies warmed to the idea, saying that despite rebates and tax credits available for solar systems, the initial investment is sometimes too much for homeowners.

“I think it will really help foster the opportunity to get more solar systems on residences,” said Kevin Price, president of Framingham Winsupply in Holliston. “It can be a big outlay. It’s definitely not an impulse purchase.”

Price said the cost of photovoltaic panels fluctuates widely, but an average cost of $6 per watt could add up to $30,000 for a 5-kilowatt system.

At the same time, Price said, the governor has set a goal of generating 250 megawatts with solar power by 2017.

“While that can be achieved by utility-size photovoltaic arrays or even large commercial installations, I think it’s very important for the general public to be able to participate in that kind of clean technology,” Price said. “This is a way to fund that and achieve that.”

Price said the program could help generate clean energy jobs, too.

Evergreen Solar, which has headquarters in Marlborough and an office in Waltham, also applauded the bill.

“Following on Gov. Patrick’s Commonwealth Solar program, this makes solar power even more accessible to the residents of the commonwealth,” said Alan King, Evergreen’s director of sales for the Americas, in a written statement.

Kelley, who started his Medway business last year, went into solar work after years as a contractor. He hopes the proposal will make his technology more affordable for customers, most of whom live in nearby towns.

“I try to keep it local,” he said.

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