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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Should you “Solarize Charlestown?”

Time is running out – deadline to sign up is September 6
By Will Collette

An example of one of Sol Power's installations from their website.
The simple answer to the question posed in the headline is YES. In fact, Cathy and I decided to do just that and just signed the contract to install solar panels under this town-sponsored program.

Green energy is the right thing to do. The town has negotiated discounts with a qualified local vendor. This could be the last year that Congress allows you to get a major tax credit for green energy installations.

Green energy economics make a lot of sense, especially considering the constant increases in the price of conventional electricity. National Grid, the British multi-national that bought up local utilities across the US and around the world, is currently requesting a 53% rate hike to take effect in October, if the state approves.

Of course, “requesting” is not the same as getting. National Grid and the state play this game every time – National Grid asks for some crazy amount, everybody gets shocked, politicians get to pretend they are populists by opposing the hike and then the state approves some lesser, but still outrageous amount.

So the more you can produce your own electricity, the better.

In Charlestown, you are generally limited to solar, though there is at least one major geothermal system in town. The process for getting town approval even for the smallest residential wind generator is so onerous that no one has managed to legally install one. This is a hold-over from the anti-wind NIMBY frenzy that beat down the Whalerock industrial wind farm proposal.

Cathy and I had Sol Power, Charlestown’s contractor, check us out and provide us with an estimate. Sol Power rep Josh Mason and I walked and talked around the house to see if solar is feasible, given the many big oaks all around us.

Josh found enough of the roof that is exposed to south-facing sunshine to make the system practical, although we could get more energy if we cut trees down – something we are not going to do. CLICK HERE for a discussion on the perversity of cutting trees for green energy.

As it turns out, the panels would go on sections of the roof that normally no one would see. Opinions are diverse about the effect of solar panels on property values – some buyers would be more attracted by lower electricity bills while others might not like the look. In our specific case, appearance is not an issue.

A recent report projects an increase in home value of up to $20,000 from the addition of solar panels.

If the solar panels do in fact increase property value, Charlestown WILL NOT increase our assessment for the value added by the system.

I was also pleased to find out there is little or no upkeep or maintenance to do on the system once it is installed. You will end up with an additional power inverter box in your basement to convert the current to what you can use. You can sell the excess electricity you don’t use on sunny days back to National Grid.

Josh was a pleasure to talk to. He knows his stuff. His home visit and estimate taught me all I needed to know about residential solar energy and, most importantly, how it would specifically work at our house.

The only reason we did not charge ahead and sign right away was the up-front cost. For us, based on the size of the installation, the gross figure is $17,680. If enough Charlestown residents sign up, that price could be discounted by up to $1,485. 

As of August 4, orders reached "Tier 2" to qualify for the first additional discount. By the end of the month, it's likely that enough Charlestown homeowners will be under contract so that we all get the full $1,485 bulk discount.

Sol Power’s estimate notes a likely $5,304 federal tax credit (which may go away under this Republican-controlled Congress).

Sol Power projects we will generate electricity worth $77,458 over 25 years and, for us, our likely “break-even” point will come after 12 years.

NOTE: These are the numbers based on our specific situation for purposes of discussion. Your numbers will almost certainly be different.

We also sought and received some professional financial advice on this project as an investment. Put bluntly, our adviser said that this was not something he would recommend strictly as an investment since, he noted, there are lots of ways to get a higher rate of return on the investment of $18,000.

He discounted Sol Power’s “profit” projections (in our case, 6% and on their advertising, up to 12%) for failing to take into account such factors as “opportunity costs.”

But having said that, he thought it was a good idea especially now that we are at an age where we are legally required to withdraw some of the money saved up in our IRAs. Plus, he noted, this project certainly reflected our values. Add all of that up and it’s a good thing for us to do.

And if you don't have the ready cash, talk to Sol Power about financing options.

Since 2011, I regretted being slower than my colleague (and Progressive Charlestown co-founder) Tom Ferrio, who jumped right onto the last major solar power deal where there was actually grant money available, as well as the federal tax credit.

Because Charlestown nixed its planned municipal wind turbine in Ninigret Park, the federal economic stimulus money was then made available for low-scale solar projects. And Tom got in on that.

Tom took this photo of the meter showing how much energy
his system generated in January 2011.
He wrote a string of interesting (and funny) articles that take you from the initial notice of the availability of funds all the way through installation and his first few bills. His articles are all tagged “Solar Power for Tom” and of course, start at the oldest article and work your way up.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit where credit is due. This is one occasion where the Town Council got it right, as much as it pains me to say that.

Now if they would just take this same positive green energy and re-open the town’s anti-wind power ordinance to strip out all the bizarre and unnecessary restrictions that have keep Charlestown home and business owners from harnessing the wind.