Solar-Marketing Plan to Target Specific Communities

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island will soon begin marketing its solar-energy program to the public. Through a joint initiative with the Office of Energy Resources (OER) and the Renewable Energy Fund, Rhode Island will join Massachusetts and Connecticut with the rollout of its own "Solarize" program that markets solar-energy projects in specific communities.

North Smithfield will test the pilot program this fall, followed by Little Compton and Tiverton next spring.

The program works by aggressively marketing installation discounts, along with state and federal incentives, for solar-energy projects in those communities.

OER director Marion Gold said the targeted campaigns drive down the cost for customers through bulk purchases, which make the subsidies more potent. Currently, state and federal incentives fund about 50 percent of a typical residential or commercial solar project.

“It’s the future,” Gold said after the Aug. 25 meeting, where the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation (Commerce RI) approved taking on a fiduciary sponsorship of the program.

The $250,000 cost for the pilot program is funded through a matching grant from the Boston-based John Merck Fund and Rhode Island’s share of payouts from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state cap-and-trade program.

In all, 84 communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire have participated in the Solarize program, which is managed by consultants at SmartPower Inc. of Washington, D.C. SmartPower says the Solarize programs have resulted in up to 10 percent of homes in a community installing new solar systems. Bulk purchases of equipment led to as much as a 20 percent reduction in installation costs, according to the organization.

“It’s been proven across the region and it’s something we’ve wanted to sink our teething into. And now we have the opportunity,” said Hannah Morini, renewable-energy program manager for the Renewable Energy Fund.

The Solarize program works by pre-selecting a solar-energy installer for a community. All of the equipment is standardized and there is no fee for an estimate. Financing programs are offered. A renewable-energy task force and ambassadors within a community market the program.

Town councils in North Smithfield and Little Compton already approved their participation in the program. Tiverton heard the proposal Aug. 25.

North Smithfield was selected because it lobbied aggressively for the program, Morini said. Little Compton and Tiverton are already working on a solar-energy initiative as part of a project with the OER and National Grid to reduce energy demand in the two communities. Both towns are considered to have insufficient electric infrastructure for energy needs. New solar energy is expected to lessen the need for building new electricity infrastructure.