Grants Provide Energy Boost to Solarize Program

A total of 65 North Smithfield. R.I., homeowners have joined the state's Solarize program. (istock)

A total of 65 North Smithfield. R.I., homeowners have joined the state's Solarize program. (istock)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Town planner Robert Ericson sees nothing but benefits to participating in Solarize Rhode Island, the town-by-town solar-panel discount program.

In all, 65 homeowners have signed up for new solar systems, resulting in economic gain as well as more reliable power.

“We see it as a way of stabilizing the (electric) distribution system and saving people money,” Ericson said.

The savings are realized in two ways. First there are tax breaks, grants and discounts, which cut the cost of a solar system by 50 percent or more. The average-size grant from the state Renewable Energy Fund (REF) for North Smithfield was $6,000. The highest grant was $10,000. Solarize Rhode Island participants also earn a group discount for installation costs.

The other benefit is the reduction in monthly electricity costs for each homeowner. The savings from the solar projects in North Smithfield are expected to deliver a full payback in five to seven years and low- to no-cost electricity for an additional 20 years. Each solar array costs between $11,000 and $42,000 before subtracting the financial incentives.

Construction by RGS Energy, the selected vendor for Solarize North Smithfield, will begin in the next weeks.

“Come summer, these things are going to be going up all over town,” Ericson said.

Commerce RI approved 26 grants totaling $349,000 for Solarize projects on April 20. An additional 23 solar projects across the state were awarded $317,000 in REF grants. Another 39 Solarize projects from North Smithfield are expected to receive grants at a future dates.

The other non-Solarize projects approved by Commerce RI include $42,435 for a 36.9-kilowatt solar array on the St. Clair Annex ice cream and sandwich shop in Watch Hill; $34,086 for a 29.64-kilowatt solar array on an affordable housing project in Middletown; $50,945 for 44.3 kilowatt solar array on a self-storage facility in Westerly; and $122,855 to installer Newport Solar for 16 residential solar arrays across the state.

Solarize RI is currently taking applications for new solar projects in Tiverton and Little Compton. The two communities were chosen in hopes that an influx of solar energy would reduce electricity demand and eliminate the need for a new electric substation in the area. So far, 200 site assessments for solar projects have been conducted. Homeowners and business owners have until May 8 to sign up for the Solarize program.

In addition to the tax credits and grants, businesses have other financial incentives, such as cost depreciation and a loan fund run through Commerce RI. The Energy Revolving Loan Fund offers interest rates between 1 to 3 percent for solar and small wind projects.

During an April 20 Solarize workshop, Eric Beecher of Sol Power, the designated solar developer for Tiverton and Little Compton, explained the concept of taming high energy prices with renewable energy. Rhode Island, he noted, has the ninth highest electricity costs in the U.S.

“Whenever you put in solar, you are essentially fixing your electric price for 25 years,” Beecher said. “So you are protecting yourself against future increases in electric rates. It’s a good way to budget for your future business costs by knowing that your electric costs are fixed to a certain point.”

The return on investment is 15 percent per year, he said, “and there is really no risk in that return. Unless electricity becomes free tomorrow, which it’s not going to do, you are realizing this return. So it’s a pretty good place to put your money.”