Environment
5:43 pm
Wed March 19, 2014

'Solarize' Effort Aims To Double Solar Power In Upper Valley Towns

Credit Rob_ / Flickr CC

There’s an experiment beginning in the Upper Valley: three communities are in the midst of a blitz attempting to double the number of solar panels in their towns. It’s called Solarize Upper Valley, and it’s being kicked off this week.

Plainfield and Cornish, combined, have fewer than 4,000 residents, but a pretty sizable number of them are considering forking over around eighteen grand to put solar panels on their roofs. The night of the kickoff event, the main street of Plainfield, was on lined both sides, for about as far as you could see.

Inside the town hall were hundreds of people like Rick Hines, who says his roof would be perfect for solar. “It’s south facing, and every time I look up there, its baking,” says Hines, “it wants some solar panels on it.”

Hines, like many in the room, is crunching the numbers to see if his family can clear the traditional hurdle for anyone installing solar panels: the pricetag.

“So that’s our dilemma right now is coming up with that initial amount of money right now to fund it, but I’m going to go home and talk to the wife a little bit more about it, because it seems like a really good deal.”

This is the basic idea of Solarize Upper Valley: offer a really good deal.

A local non-profit – called Vital Communities – helped the towns select an installer, and the more people who sign up, the cheaper the solar panels get. There are four pricing tiers, and to get to the cheapest price, the towns each have to get more than 60 kilowatts of solar panels on roofs. The base price is $3.75 per watt, but it drops down to $3.40/watt if enough people sign up.

An average residential solar array is around five kilowatts according to Solar Source, which will be the installer in Cornish and Plainfield. So it should take about a dozen homes to get to the cheapest rate.

Craig Bell, the general manager at Solar Source, says the tiers  are not very aggressive, “so you’re there fairly quickly if you think about it in that manner.” If they hit the highest tier, they all get the big discount, which Bell thinks could amount to as much as $3,000 dollars for some homes.

And given the turnout for the kick-off event, that’s feasible: 115 people packed the town hall, and Solar Source scheduled 90 site visits, and similar numbers turned out for the first kickoff in Thetford, over the weekend.

Kickoff events this week were held for packed houses in three Upper Valley Towns this week.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown

“This is a great time to sort of step up and say, you don’t have to drive a Prius, you don’t have to be a someone who… whatever you can just go solar!” exclaims Sarah Simonds, the young and energized Energy program Coordinator for Vital communities, “You can be anyone and go solar!”

She says this program is based on similar efforts in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“They’ve seen double, if not triple or quadruple the amount of solar residential energy in those communities just in a 15, 20 week period, which is incredible if we’re talking about how to jump start a solar energy market,” explains Simonds.

In the Upper Valley, there are three Solarize efforts taking place at the same time: one in Plainfield and Cornish, one in Lyme and another across the river in Thetford and Strafford, Vermont.

And they come at a pretty good time for solar: panel prices have fallen precipitously in the past two years, and federal and state incentives now cover about half of the cost of installing an array.

Solar Source thinks a standard installation – something tied to the grid and not backed up by batteries – could pay itself off in ten years, and the rest of the twenty-five year life of the panels is pure gravy. That means increasingly the decision to go solar is not about being an environmentalist, it’s economic.

“Looking at people in Plainfield certainly that I’m familiar with, now it’s not just the old hippies that want to do it,” says Ron Eberhardt, a selectman in Plainfield, “It’s for people who it just makes sense for all kinds of reasons.”

In 2013, more than 4,700 megawatts of solar was installed around the country. Only natural gas surpassed it in terms of new electric generation. At the same time, battles began to spring up between solar companies and traditional utilities fighting to keep their economic model from eroding from under them.

That hasn’t been the case in New Hampshire, where solar hasn’t caught on in a big way. That’s probably because for most, solar still feels exotic.

Eberhardt thinks it will only catch on when enough people are hearing from someone they really trust who already has panels, which is why he installed solar hot water on his roof a few years back.

“That kind of word of mouth and seeing your neighbors did it and it makes sense, it’s a little less frightening and it’s a little more familiar,” he says.

Which may be what starts to happen six months from now in the Upper Valley.