Discount Solar Program Coming to 7 R.I. Communities

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

“Buy solar, save money.” That’s the mantra of Rhode Island’s solar discount program set to launch in seven communities: Barrington, Foster, Middletown, Newport, Portsmouth, South Kingstown and Warwick.

The Solarize Rhode Island concept is fairly straightforward. The more people who sign up for solar for their homes or businesses, the cheaper this energy is for everyone in the community. The program rolled out in North Smithfield last October, which led to 84 contracts for solar installations. This past spring, Tiverton and Little Compton tallied 64 contracts.

Beginning Oct. 26 each of the seven communities will be assigned a designated solar installer. Each installer is approved through an application process conducted by a team of solar experts.

Home and business owners have until Feb. 15 to sign up for a free site visit and a free estimate. Not every house and building is suitable for solar, but those that choose to go forward qualify for several incentives, plus a discount on installation costs. How much depends on how many of their neighbors also sign up.

A typical residential solar system costs between $9,000 and $42,000, before the program’s discounts kick in. Savings and incentives cut that expense by 50 percent or more, and delivers a payback period of about five years, according to program officials.

The federal tax credit reduces the cost by 30 percent. State grants through the Renewable Energy Fund (REF) cover up to an additional 29 percent. In North Smithfield, Tiverton and Little Compton, the average REF grant was $6,000. The highest grant awarded was $10,000.

Solarize discounts reduce installation costs by 20 percent to 25 percent. Each community also will decide if a solar array is exempt from inclusion in property tax assessments. So far, five of the seven communities have approved the tax breaks. Barrington was the most recent, when the Town Council voted Oct. 5 to grant the solar tax break.

A photovoltaic solar system is designed to match the electricity use of your home or business — so the payback on investment is realized through a significantly reduced electricity bill.

Solar leases aren’t available yet in Rhode Island. However, businesses can qualify for loans through Commerce RI. Some local banks offer loans for solar projects through a home-equity loan. Several local solar installers also offer loan-to-own programs.

The costs for panels and installation continue to hit record lows. Since 2010, residential solar costs have dropped 45 percent. The cost for panels, equipment and installation are all trending down. However, the 30 percent federal tax credit is set to expire by the end of 2016.

Funding through private foundations, electric bill charges and the state’s participation in the regional cap-and-trade program fund the solarize marketing and outreach efforts within each community. Expect to see signs, mailers, workshops, tabling and a formal launch in each solarize community.

The solarize concept started in 2009 in Portland, Ore., and has spread to more than a thousand communities nationwide, including more than 100 in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.    

By the end of 2014, there were nearly 645,000 solar installations across the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

At the announcement for the launch, Barrington town planner Phil Hervey said residents expressed strong interest in solar energy through a recent online survey.

“There is a lot of excitement and potential in Barrington,” he said.