Dr. Bruce Karlin understood the basic engineering involved in installing solar panels at his Hopkinton home to generate electricity, but it’s the economics that are prompting him to expand the system.
Two years ago, he spent about $22,000 to have 18 photovoltaic panels installed on his roof with an inverter tied into the circuit panel in the basement, along with a two-way electric meter to funnel electricity he does not use out onto the NStar grid.
The combination of a grant and state and federal tax credits knocked the initial cost down to $12,000.
Then came the Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, which homeowners earn
from the state by generating solar electricity and can sell like commodities to brokers.
In the first year, Karlin sold $1,500 in certificates and generated the equivalent of $1,000 in electricity for his own use.
“That’s the long and short of it,” said Karlin, a 65-year-old physician. “I am delighted with my system so much, I am putting up six more panels for a battery backup.”
Karlin was one of about 50 people to turn out recently for what was dubbed Solar 201, a public meeting to introduce SolarFlair Energy Inc. as the contractor selected to mount a local bulk purchase of solar photovoltaic installations for interested Hopkinton residents and business owners.
Hopkinton is one of 17 cities and towns — already designated as Green Communities for their energy conservation efforts — to be invited to join the Solarize Massachusetts project, which aims to increase the use of solar power.
The state program uses a combination of bulk purchasing, state and federal tax credits, and rebates to offer reduced start-up prices for homeowners and businesses that choose to buy solar systems.
The other communities are Acton, Arlington, Boston, Melrose, Mendon, Montague, Newburyport, Palmer, and Shirley individually, plus Pittsfield-Lenox, Millbury-Sutton and Wayland-Sudbury-Lincoln jointly.
Solar electrical capacity has increased dramatically in Massachusetts over the last decade, growing yearly from just 0.04 megawatts in 2002 to 118 megawatts so far this year, according to Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The Solarize Massachusetts program is part of Governor Deval Patrick’s push to more than double that capacity to 250 megawatts of solar photovoltaic-generated electricity over the next five years.
SolarFlair Energy Inc. was selected as Hopkinton’s contractor in the group-buying program by a committee of town and state officials and an outside consultant through a competitive bidding process. The other Solarize communities used the same process to select their contractors.
Installation prices are offset by state tax credits (up to $1,000 or 15 percent of installation cost) and federal tax credits (30 percent of installation) and rebates of up to $4,250 on the Massachusetts-made inverters.
And the more people who sign up, the lower the prices will go, said SolarFlair vice president Dan Greenwood.
Potential participants must first schedule home assessments and home energy audits before the Sept. 30 deadline for enrollment.
Even if a home turns out to be unsuitable for solar photovoltaic, the free energy audit can pay off in savings through making the home more energy efficient, said Betsy McDonald, program manager with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
The cost of installing a 5-kilowatt system on a home can run from $17,000 to nearly $19,000, depending on how many other homes are enrolled, but the incentives on tap knock the price down significantly, Greenwood said. A $17,000 system would actually cost just $11,000 after the tax credits and rebates, he said.
Most installations generate roughly 80 percent of the power used in a home over the course of a year, with more electricity generated during the longer days of summer than in winter.
Homeowners can break even within four years, he said, although how a system is financed will affect the numbers. Most homeowners use equity loans to pay for their systems.
The town’s official solar coach, Green Committee chairman Andy Boyce, said he already has a list of more than 200 people interested in joining Solarize Hopkinton, which would put the program well into the lowest cost category.
Karlin wondered if SolarFlair would be able to meet the price quotes for installation promised in the presentation. The prices appeared thousands of dollars less than he had paid to another company two years ago.
Greenwood assured him the bulk purchasing involved in the program would keep prices down.
Phil Gradie, a retiree who splits his year between Hopkinton and Florida, was more interested in the lower electric bills offered through another option in the Solarize scheme: having a third-party vendor put its solar panels on his roof and give him a reduced rate for electricity without the tax breaks or other incentives that offset the price of installation.
Those would go to the third-party, which Gradie said was just fine with him.
“I go away three months a year to Florida. I shut the whole house down and I still get bills for 50 or 60 bucks a month. For what? A refrigerator? They’re murdering me,” said Gradie, who recently swapped electrical suppliers to save pennies per kilowatt hour on his electric bills. “I don’t dare turn on the air conditioner. I get hit with bills for $200 to $300. I’m tired of the electric company owning me.”
Wendy Zimmerman and Steven Popkes had done so much research into what it would take to convert their home to solar photovoltaic, they already had received quotes from other companies when they attended the June 28 meeting to hear more about Solarize Hopkinton.
They said they liked Greenwood’s no-nonsense approach.
“We are pretty ready to go. We are signed up, but we haven’t signed up to have them come out to our house yet,” Popkes said. “It seems very straightforward. The tiered pricing is very promising.”
Zimmerman said the potential income from the sales of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates would offset the expense of installation enough to make solarizing their home feasible. “The [certificates] make a big difference in financing it,” she said.
The going rate for a single certificate is about $520 and a typical 5-kilowatt system will generate enough electricity to earn the homeowner five to six certificates annually. The certificates are awarded based on the total solar electricity a homeowner produces, not how much the household consumes.
Utility companies purchase the certificates to meet requirements that they support green energy.
Ed Beecher came to Solar 201 with more on his mind than just energy savings and returns on the solar investment. He asked McDonald of the state Clean Energy Center to pass along a message to the governor.
“Please tell him to use his influence with the president to get him to follow our model in Massachusetts and stop funding the fracking people in Ohio,” Beecher said.
Later, Beecher explained that his daughter is a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she has become active in opposing the controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale through hydraulic fracturing, or injecting water and chemicals under high pressure deep into the ground.
Beecher said installing a solar photovoltaic system on his home would be taking a stand against continued reliance on fossil fuels.
“I had been looking into [solar power] on my own when I saw Hopkinton had been selected to do this. It just made sense to me. What could be better than working together to clean energy at a lower cost? We are working together to save the planet? You really are doing something tangible to reduce your carbon footprint,” Beecher said.