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SHIRLEY — “It is our mission to provide to you the best economics and the best deal to get the best solar,” said Massachusetts Clean Energy Center CEO Patrick Cloney before a crowd of about 50 people in the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School auditorium last week.

The Shirley Energy Committee hosted this first Solarize Shirley event, dubbed Solar 101, on May 24. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce Shirley residents and business owners to the benefits, costs, and available incentives for solar photovoltaic installation and to answer their questions.

Cloney explained that Solarize Massachusetts is a program that provides a unique and comprehensive opportunity for homeowners and small businesses to install solar photovoltaic panels on their property at a lower cost than available elsewhere with very short-term financial payback, and even the choice to lease the system with low or no upfront costs.

Solarize Shirley’s history

Last February, MassCEC and the Department of Energy Resources selected 17 cities and towns designated as Green Communities, including Shirley, to participate in the 2012 Solarize Massachusetts program, part of the state’s effort to install 250 megawatts of solar by 2017.

In April, MassCEC issued a request for proposals to solar photovoltaic installers. As a component of their proposals, installers are required to include a tiered pricing structure that insures that cost savings achieved through scale are passed on to the customer. This also provides an incentive for residents and business owners to encourage their neighbors to consider solar PV.

Because only one bid was received for the Green Communities of Shirley, Montague and Pittsfield-Lenox, the RFP is being reopened for a short period to solicit additional bids.

Solar 101

Now that Shirley has been selected to participate in Solarize Massachusetts, the town is working with MassCEC and the SEC to inform residents and businesses about the solar-discount program, which ends Sept. 30.

As part of the application process, the town sought residents interested in installing solar photovoltaic on their homes and businesses and received about 112 responses. About half that number were present at the Solar 101 meeting, which included an overview of the program by representatives from MassCEC, along with a question-and-answer session and signups.

In his introduction, Coley explained that in the U.S., prices for solar power have been declining rapidly in recent years. Since there are no fuel costs and there is minimal upkeep, the expense, he said, comes from the initial investment.

“As fossil fuels are becoming more expensive due to resource depletion, geographical barriers and health risks, solar energy is presenting a more and more viable alternative, and you can be part of this solution,” he said.

“One of the most efficient ways to harness sunlight is via photovoltaic cells, either placed on a roof or free-standing over a parking lot, or even a field.”

Whereas electricity prices from utility companies are guaranteed to go up, “If you want to buy a solar system for your house, it is a flat-line cost because you know you will pay a fixed price for the next 20 years,” said Cloney.

“Do you want to pay 15 cents (per kWh) today knowing it is going to go up, or pay less and know that it will stay the same over time?”

Massachusetts homeowners and small businesses currently pay one of the highest rates for electricity in the nation, and $18 billion in Massachusetts’ energy dollars flow out of the state annually. “But solar and other alternative energy sources can change that,” Cloney stated.

“We live in New England and it feels like we don’t have enough sunlight to be a good source for solar, but Germany has the highest concentration of solar systems of any place on the globe,” he said. “So Massachusetts has plenty of solar resources both to be effective and economically viable.”

How it works

MassCEC Renewable Energy Generation Project Coordinator Elizabeth Youngblood detailed how absorbed sunlight dislodges electrons in a solar panel impregnated with a semiconductor material that creates an energy field and causes energy to flow into the solar photovoltaic system.

The current flows from the panel connected to an electrical circuit for use in your home or business. The number of amps produced by the panel multiplied times the voltage or electric potential equals the number of watts produced. One thousand watts equals one kilowatt.

Youngblood explained the kilowatt-hour, a unit of energy equivalent to one kilowatt of power expended for one hour, is the billing unit for energy delivered to consumers by utility companies. The average New England home uses 8,040 kWh per year, a measurement that has increased steadily over time, she said.

When sunlight hits the photovoltaic cells, it creates direct current power, which is then sent to an inverter that converts it into the alternating current power used by household appliances.

The AC power goes from the inverter to an energy meter. The solar system will either have a separate meter that measures its production with the electricity plugged directly into the utility grid, or the electricity will be used in the house itself.

In the latter case, when the sun is shining, power from the panels is used to power appliances, and any excess power generated from the panels is sent back to the grid. This causes the power meter to turn backwards or go down, said Youngblood, and the consumer gets a credit for his or her electricity. At night, when the sun is down and the panels are not producing energy, the house draws energy from the grid and the energy meter turns forwards or goes up.

Net metering

Net metering credits, which are generated when the system is producing more electricity than is being used, allow customers to net out the energy drawn from the grid with energy sent to the grid over a billing period. The utility company generally reads the meter at the beginning and end of the billing month to determine the net energy use or export.

At the end of a billing month, if a customer has used more energy than they have sent out to the grid, they will only have to pay energy-related charges for the net energy used during the billing month. If the customer has sent more energy to the grid than was drawn from it during the billing month, then the customer is a net exporter during that billing period and a renewable generation credit will be applied to the account. Credits can be carried over month to month.

Getting started

Youngblood recommended that utility customers interested in a solar photovoltaic installation first look at their electric utility bills to see how much energy their households are consuming. The electric bills show a summary of the prior year’s consumption.

She said Mass Save offers free energy assessments for anyone who signs up. During the no-cost audit, an energy specialist assesses the current energy use of one’s home or business, provides a custom list of energy-saving recommendations, and helps the homeowner or business owner to develop a plan to make the home or business more efficient.

Shirley residents who wish to schedule their no-cost home energy audits with Mass Save may call 866-527-SAVE (7283) or visit www.masssave.com.

If you reduce your load by 20 percent, then you need 20 percent less of a (solar photovoltaic) system to install,” said Youngblood. “That’s the low hanging fruit of energy efficiency in your home.”

Those in Shirley interested in going solar must be under contract by Sept. 30 to take advantage of the pricing and facilitation of the process offered under Solarize Mass. For information contact shirleysolar@yahoo.com or call 978-425-2726.

Next Week: more financial incentives and answers to questions.

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