By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor
FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — In honor of a recent MassBike Week, half a dozen solar-power enthusiasts bicycled to four residential solar sites. Homeowners were on hand to share the nuts and bolts of switching to solar with cyclists. This was the sixth tour conducted by SouthCoast Energy Challenge, a 4-year-old nonprofit that challenges its 27 member communities to reduce energy usage by 15 percent.
The New Bedford-based organization sponsors events that educate residents about climate change, solar power and energy efficiency.
“Usually we chose homes for the tour based on a variety of types, range of costs and models,” said Karen Stewart, the organization’s assistant director. “This time we chose four homes for their proximity to the Phoenix Bike Trail and for fitting within a ten-mile ride.”
Cyclists on the May 17 tour got to see different model roof panels and arrays from different manufacturers, although Stewart didn’t encourage people to get too attached to one model. Models may go off the market, she said, or the installer will only use one type. Stewart recommends shopping around and doing some research.
“What makes solar energy so attractive is net metering,” she said, noting that credits are created when usage drops below solar-energy generation and can be used or carried over to the next year. “Ninety-nine percent of the systems are grid-tied. The solar energy is used at the home or pushed to the grid. At night, the homeowner pulls power off the grid using credits.”
Ideally, Stewart said, panel arrays are sized to usage so that there’s net zero — no monthly electrical cost — to the homeowner.
In Massachusetts, if the homeowner has excess credit, they can donate it to another facility — such as a church — or another account, such as a family member in a different home.
The other incentive to installing solar are the tax credits and rebates offered through the state and federal government, Stewart said.
Four years ago, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) and the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) partnered to create Solarize Mass, a public outreach educational program and tiered system for group power purchasing. A precursor to Solarize Rhode Island, the program decreases the cost per watt of the installed system based on how many solar systems are installed in the community under the program.
“Over 2,400 residents and small businesses have installed solar systems under the program statewide,” said Ken Ramos, program coordinator at New Bedford Energy Now, the city’s own energy challenge program. Ramos noted the annual statewide savings of $380,000 a year for those customers who switched to solar.
New Bedford formed New Bedford Energy Now (NBEN) in 2011 to help residents and small businesses take advantage of solar savings. The program’s Solar NOW component set a goal of 25 solar installations. By last fall, NBEN had tripled that target with 80 residential and small businesses signed up for solar installations, according to Ramos.
“Because so many residents signed on, New Bedford reached the highest level of the tier, allowing them to receive the greatest rebate,” Ramos said. “When I talk to ten people at a neighborhood association meeting, they’ll go and tell their families and friends, and more people will sign on.”
Additional rebates came from another MCEC and DOER program, Commonwealth Solar II, which targeted the high cost of small-system installations as a roadblock to residents and small-business owners. To counter that, the program offered rebates for new installations.
The program was so successful that the sheer volume of new solar systems drove down the price for small systems by 30 percent in four years, according to MassCEC, as $36 million in rebates were disbursed throughout 46 communities during the four-year period it was offered. The program ended Jan. 21.
Solar Loan, a new low-interest solar program that matches purchasers with lenders, has $30 million available in amounts from $3,000 to $35,000, at rates below 3 percent and terms of up to 10 years. DOER anticipates a $130 million investment in solar systems from this loan program.
SouthCoast Energy Challenge has sponsored tours in Westport, Fairhaven (twice), Dartmouth (twice) and the Tritown area (Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester). This summer, it will pair up with NBEN on a tour of New Bedford, and Bay Coast Bank for the first solar tour of Swansea. Bay Coast Bank, a longtime supporter of the challenge, has a large solar array atop its main headquarters.
“What’s neat about the solar tours is that people jump borders,” Stewart said. “People from Dartmouth went to the Fairhaven tours.”