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Thursday, December 20, 2012

You, too, could be like Tom Ferrio

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Actual reading from Tom's meter last January
EDITOR'S NOTE: the last time funding like this was available, my colleague Tom Ferrio got his application in on time and was able to get funding help to install a small solar generator to help power his home. The results have been far better than Tom expected. Click here to read how well solar power can work in a Charlestown home in the middle of the woods.

PROVIDENCE — Next year installers of solar panels for homes and small businesses will get a boost from the state Renewable Energy Development Fund (REF).

For the first time the $6.5 million fund will include small-scale solar with its green energy projects available for loans and grants. The program also fulfills a need that small-scale solar and wind businesses have sought since a state renewable energy tax credit expired in 2010.

Monday evening the state Economic Development Corporation, led by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, approved the overhaul of the REF that until now financed much larger solar and wind energy projects.

Since 2008, the REF has supported Ocean SAMP research, $3.2 million; Toray Plastics solar array, $750,000; United Natural Foods Inc. solar array, $700,000; West Broadway Neighborhood Association solar project, $520,000; PCS Utilidata loan, $500,000; Arpin Van Lines loan and grant, $487,940; East Bay Energy Consortium wind and energy efficiency, $435,000; and town of Portsmouth loan for wind energy, $400,000.

In June, the REF received a $4.5 million alternative compliance payment, or ACP, from National Grid for money paid by electric suppliers on order to comply with alternative energy benchmarks. A fee charged to electricity customers has so far delivered $8.8 million to the REF. The charge delivers between $200,000 and $225,000 to the REF monthly.

This has been a controversial year for wind energy development. Several projects that received funding from the REF are far from breaking ground, including $435,000 for the East Bay Energy Consortium wind farm and $30,000 for a wind study in Jamestown — a project was put on hold indefinitely in August.

Hannah Morini, program manager for the REF, said the fund intends to shift away from paying for wind studies now that a state map showing wind locations is posted on online.

The REF, she said, also will be more transparent, with added oversight from a new advisory board to review applications. The EDC executive board must then approve each grant or loan approved by the advisory board.

At a Dec. 13 hearing, solar contractor Vito Buonomano urged Morini to give preference to Rhode Island businesses to prevent out-of-state solar installers from flooding the market. “We’re the ones that are going to create the long-term sustainable jobs,” he said.

The final version of the new fund guidelines didn't include a preference for local businesses.

The new REF rules define small-scale energy projects as those with a capacity of 10 kilowatts or smaller.

Each project is eligible for a maximum $10,000 grant or $20,000 low-interest loan. The grant covers up to 25 percent of the project and loans fund up to 50 percent of the cost.

A minimum of three solar hot water and solar photovoltaic projects must be bid together to qualify for funding. Only solar contractors, neighborhood associations or other approved groups can apply.

The REF will continue to offer up to $75,000 to support commercial projects between 10 and 50 kilowatts. Renewable energy projects of more than 50 kilowatts, such as large wind turbines, are encouraged to seek financial incentives through the state distributed generation pricing program.

Start-up technologies, such as those promoting biofuels and anearobic digestors, will be eligible for up to $300,000 in a loan or grant.