If you’re thinking that only Californians and Southwesterners can reap the rewards of solar energy, it’s time to think again. Progressive and workable incentive programs, strong net-metering support, increasing utility rates, and ample year-round solar resources are giving home and business owners in several Northeast states plenty of opportunities to plug into affordable renewable energy.
After California and New Jersey—states with longer histories of support for renewable energy—the Northeast has become the third-largest market for photovoltaic systems in the United States. Solar thermal technologies have enjoyed a parallel surge in popularity—in particular, rooftop collectors for domestic hot water or radiant heating.
SolarWrights, our Rhode Island-based renewable energy company with offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont, has seen an annual sales volume increase from less than $100,000 in 2000 to more than $5 million and is experiencing continued rapid expansion. Jim Grundy, president of Elemental Energy in East Montpelier, Vermont, reports, “We’ve had a five-fold growth in sales since 1999.” In New York alone, the number of applications for PV system incentives has increased by a factor of 3.5 during the past three years.
So what’s behind the northeastern rush to renewables? Favorable economics, says Jonathan Klein, a consultant specializing in emerging technology trends. Klein says that “solar energy still requires substantial subsidies” to compete with subsidized fossil-fuel generated electricity, and “stretching subsidy dollars means focusing on the customers who require the least amount to make solar power a profitable investment.” These customers, he says, are the “small” utility customers—homeowners and small businesses—who end up paying the highest rates for utility electricity.
And in the Northeast, it’s these small customers who pay some of the highest retail electricity rates in the nation. Paired with progressive incentives, solar-generated electricity quickly becomes an economically viable energy solution for these customers. In fact, when states are ranked in order of the subsidies required to make solar energy break even with utility electricity costs, six northeastern states—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine—appear in the top eight, the other two being California (No. 1) and Nevada (No. 3).
Solar electricity is particularly helpful to the notoriously creaky Northeastern electrical grid. As more and more PV systems are installed, the combined generation capacity will help stabilize the utility infrastructure, and reduce brownouts and blackouts during summertime peak loads.
Mary and Jack Brennan had eyes for the future when they had a 9.7-kilowatt grid-tied PV system installed at their Guilderland, New York, home. “We strongly believe in preserving the earth for future generations, and ‘going green’ is a portion of what we can do to help the environment,” says Jack. “Plus, our already-high electric rates will probably go even higher…[so] our PV system will reduce the amount of utility electricity we need to purchase and eventually reduce our dollars spent.” According to the Energy Information Administration, average retail rates for electricity in New York have risen about 22% in the past four years—from 13.5 to 16.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Consumers are experiencing similar trends in other northeastern states. Connecticut Light & Power Company recently requested a 4.6% hike in retail electricity rates starting in 2008—this in a state whose residents have suffered a whopping 90% increase in rates over the past seven years.
Thankfully, these states also have initiated renewable energy goals—of which solar comprises a varying share—as well as differing funding solutions, paperwork, and procedures for installation oversight. SolarWright’s founder Robert Chew, who has both written and advised on subsidy program legislation, feels that Connecticut’s incentive program for photovoltaics is a good model for the Northeast. Its performance-based approach takes into account the PTC (PV USA test conditions) rating of modules and inverter efficiency, which better reflects real-world PV system production.
By requiring that approved PV installation professionals install systems that are receiving financial incentives, the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund is balancing the necessary increase in installation capacity to handle this fast-growing market with maintaining high installation standards. In Rhode Island, the utility National Grid has worked closely with industry leaders to develop a streamlined and effective interconnection application process that may also serve as a valuable model.
It hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy politicians that solar technology is simply good business: It is one of the most labor-intensive fields in the energy industry, and is on track to create more than 30,000 new jobs in the United States by 2015. These are not low-wage temporary positions, but quality careers in manufacturing, engineering, and installation. According to a Solar Energy Industries Association report, “each megawatt of installed systems supports 32 jobs, a quarter of which are local installation and sales positions.”
The success that solar is seeing in the Northeast should put to rest any doubts about its effectiveness and value. The region receives more sunshine than Germany, which boasts the most installed PV of any country in recent years. Solar installers and energy professionals agree that, unlike the “boom and bust” environment created by quickly established—and quickly snuffed—subsidy programs in the ’70s and ’80s, interest and investment in renewable energy is here to stay.
Although occasional predictions of “breakthroughs” in module efficiency appear in the press regularly, it is unlikely that this will result in significantly decreased consumer prices in the near term. More likely, increased manufacturing capacity will bring down the price of tried-and-true silicon-based modules. Many industry experts are forecasting continued equipment-cost reductions in the years ahead. As the installed cost per watt of PV declines, financial incentives will likely be scaled back and ultimately eliminated. But that is not necessarily a bad thing: It would simply mean that solar technology is finally coming into its own as an economically viable, clean energy choice.
Owner Name: Robert & Lisbeth Chew
Location: Bristol, Rhode Island
Average Peak Sun-Hours: 4.46
System Type: Grid-tied PV
System Size: 4 KW
Average Annual Production: 4,960 KWH
Although this hundred-year-old home in Bristol is not governed by the stricter rules of the historical district that begins one block to the west, its new owners wanted to respect traditional aesthetics while installing a modern PV system. The steep pitch of the south-facing roof threatened to make a typical PV installation stand out, so careful array design and module selection was key. The Chews opted for a rectangular design that followed the home’s roof lines, and chose SunPower SPR-200 modules, with their less obtrusive flat-black appearance.
Twenty modules feed into two SunPower SPR-2000 inverters. During its first twelve months of operation, the system produced just over 4,960 kilowatt-hours. This has delighted Robert and Lisbeth, as it has effectively freed them from paying a monthly utility bill. Rhode Island’s net-metering regulation zeros out excess PV production annually, which means the Chews can build up credits during the sunnier months, and then use them in the winter. The Chews say the array has the added benefit of shading the roof, making their upstairs office cooler in the summer, reducing the use of a window-mounted air conditioner and further decreasing their need for electricity.
Owner Name: Pine Point School
Location: Stonington, Connecticut
Average Peak Sun-Hours: 4.46
System Type: Grid-tied PV
System Size: 72.6 KW
Average Annual Production: 80,000 KWH
At Pine Point School, children learn the four R’s: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic—and renewables—with a 72.6-kilowatt rooftop solar-electric array that provides 40% of the school’s electricity needs. The system was funded in part through a special grant from Connecticut’s On-Site Renewable Energy Generation program, with the balance of costs funded through the solar developer. The school purchases the solar electricity at a reduced rate through a green power purchase agreement with the system owner.
Under this agreement, common for large commercial projects, the system developer owns the PV system and sells renewable energy to the host at a reduced rate, adjusted annually depending on the cost of electricity provided by the local utility. This allows Pine Point School to avoid budgeting the large cost of purchasing the system. As retail rates for utility electricity continue to climb, the school will benefit by having reduced its grid usage.
“This is the first small-scale project in Connecticut to incorporate a creative power purchase agreement between the system developer and the host site,” says Lise Dondy, chief operating director of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.
“Pine Point wants to reduce its carbon footprint,” says Pine Point head of school Paul Geise. “In doing so, it hopes to serve as a model for other schools in Connecticut and throughout the country. There’s no doubt that in the last year there has been a sea of change in the public’s perception of the environment, most notably regarding the topic of global warming. Pine Point is committed to being a good steward of the environment, both institutionally and through its work with students. That spirit and commitment have been most tangibly demonstrated with the installation of a photovoltaic system that will supply well over a third of the school’s electricity.”
Owner Name: Mark & Lisa Nelson
Location: Westerly, Rhode Island
Average Peak Sun-Hours: 4.64
System: Evacuated tube solar hot water
System Size: Viessman V300, 30-tube collector
Average Annual Production: 9.0 MBtu (2,638 KWH)
The Nelsons chose a solar hot water system to offset their use of an oil-fueled boiler that provides both space heating and domestic water heating. With two children and frequent guests, their boiler was running much of the time, which was especially annoying in the summer months. By switching to a solar hot water system, the boiler rarely needs to run to heat water for their household.
The Nelsons’ roof, which faces 40 degrees west of true south, offered a particular design challenge for a typical flat-plate solar hot water system. Finally, it was decided that an evacuated tube system would be a better match because it is easier to rotate the tubes toward the south for maximum solar exposure. A 20-watt PV module powers the system’s circulation pump. Because of this, the system can continue to function in the event of power outages. At 80 gallons of 120°F water per day, their hot water use is a bit higher than the 62 gallons typically used by a family of four. But the effect of installing the system has been that they rarely rely on using their oil-fueled boiler in the summer—the system provides about 70% of their yearly hot water needs.
Owner Name: Cheryl Wheeler & Cathleen Joyce
Location: Swansea, Massachusetts
Average Peak Sun-Hours: 4.51
System: Solar pool heater
System Size: 9 Aquatherm 1500, 4 x 8 ft. collectors
Average Daily Production: 0.2 MBtu per day during summer (58.6 KWH)
When folk singer Cheryl Wheeler and her partner Cathleen Joyce built an in-ground saltwater swimming pool, they wanted to heat it with solar energy and extend their swimming season. But they had already filled the south roof of their barn with a 4-kilowatt PV array, and no other south-facing roof space was available. That called for innovative problem-solving from the installers. The barn’s shallow-pitched north-facing roof offered a solution. The unglazed collectors were mounted at a low pitch on the roof, and still produce a significant amount of hot water for pool heating. The pool’s filter pump circulates pool water to the collectors, where it is heated before its return trip to the pool.
Over the years, Cheryl and Cathleen have become strong proponents of renewable energy and often promote its concepts to concert audiences. At home, both walk the walk by driving Toyota Priuses, and relying on a PV array for electricity and a solar thermal system for water heating. Cathleen says that “the pool heating system has met all of our goals,” with the pool easily reaching the preset temperature of 88°F on sunny days. Although the temperature drops on cool mornings after the cover is taken off, water coming from the collectors arrives 8°F to 10°F hotter than when it leaves the pool, allowing them to extend the swimming season by eight to twelve weeks each year.
Jon Sharp and Ray Furse are regional managers for SolarWrights, in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Litchfield, Connecticut, respectively. Robert Chew is the founder and president of their employee-owned RE firm, based in Bristol, Rhode Island.