By Ellen Oliver
On a rainy April 10th evening, the Stow Energy Working Group hosted a forum for residents to discuss considerations when installing solar energy in their home or business. About 40 people attended the meeting at the Town Hall to hear representatives from Hudson Light & Power, a local solar installer, Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and a Stow resident provide information, discuss their experiences, and answer questions.
Sharon Brownfield and Arnie Epstein of the Stow Energy Working Group opened the forum, focused solely on solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Since the group’s mission is to explore ways to increase the sustainable initiatives of the Town, Brownfield said, “We wanted to educate ourselves and anyone else interested in solar energy.” Epstein added, “Solar is becoming mainstream, it’s no longer a boutique source of energy.”
Mark Durrenberger from Hudson-based installer New England Clean Energy, outlined the equipment options he offers as a solar installer and addressed common questions such as shade factors, snow pile up and grid shut downs. “When there’s a power outage, the grid-tied systems have to go off to protect the linesmen,” he explained. Therefore, solar systems tied into the grid cannot serve as an alternate power source when the power goes out due to storms.
Brian Choquette from HL&P explained the utility’s program for buying back excess energy generated by solar PV systems. Most utilities use “net metering” to purchase excess energy generated from solar PV systems during daylight hours. Since PV systems don’t store energy unless they have an expensive battery storage system, most homes are tied to the power grid and obtain electricity from the utility at night or when the PV system isn’t providing enough power to meet demand.
While many other utilities buy back power at the same price at which it is purchased by the consumer, HL&P currently charges 13.5 cents for kilowatt hour, but buys back at 5.3 cents. “It’s not net metering,” Choquette explained. “We pay the same for excess generation that we pay wholesale providers.” Choquette said the price differential covers the costs of equipment and labor that are still required to service homes with solar, adding that other utilities recover these costs in a “power adjustment” charge on customer bills. Choquette and Durrenberger each said HL&P’s installation rebate incentives for installing solar PV systems are presently better than those offered by NStar, Unitil, or National Grid.
Michael Judge from the Massachusetts DOER provided a worksheet to calculate system costs and return on investment with varying factors such as power company incentives, energy credits, and purchase of excess energy. Judge is with the Renewal Portfolio Standard department, the state program that monitors the market for renewal energy credits (called SRECs), which some entities are required to purchase to offset their energy consumption. Judge said the process for claiming renewal energy credits “can be complicated” and suggested working with an aggregator who understands the system. “Over 80% of SRECs are from residential homeowners,” said Judge.
Stow resident Jack Zettler described his experiences installing a solar PV system on his home, saying as he got older he was looking for ways, “to bring that electric bill down to zero.” An engineer, Zettler sited and designed his house to take advantage of the angles and tree buffers to maximize his system’s effectiveness. “The roof pitch is ideal and I was at 95% of ideal in a shade analysis,” he said.
Zettler says he plans his energy consumption to coincide with his solar production, even raising the thermostat during the day to stretch the heat into the evening hours. “I got my wife to use the dryer during the day,” he laughed.
Along with solar, Zettler also uses a geothermal system and seems to have reached his energy saving goals. “It looks like I have no electric bill at all between the SRECs, what I use, and what I sell back,” he said. Zettler, who lives at 52 Barton Road, said people are welcome to get in touch or drive by his house to see his system.
The attendees of the forum also heard from Jim Elkind, who was part of Harvard’s Solarized Massachusetts program and is now with NE Clean Energy. Elkind explained that residents of Harvard banded together to install systems and receive additional incentives from the state. “Seventy-five people signed up in Harvard,” he said. Elkind said with the Solarized program everyone paid the same price (roughly $4 per kilowatt hour) no matter if they were the first or last person to install a system. Elkind said he’d provide more details if Stow was interested in gathering a group to qualify for the program.
The forum will be broadcast on local cable and the presentations, including HL&P’s requirements for receiving a solar PV system incentive credit, and worksheets are available at www.sustainablestow.org.