Wendy Arundel didn’t pay much attention when several neighbors on her quiet residential street in Natick installed solar panels on their roofs. A self-described minimalist, she lives in a one-story, 700-square-foot bungalow and believed her home already was energy-efficient.
“I hadn’t really thought it was something I needed to do, because I live in a small, well-insulated house and my electric bill isn’t that high,” she said.
But her thinking changed after a sales associate from a regional solar panel installation company knocked at her door. “He had me at environmental benefits,” Arundel said. “It might not save me a lot of money, but I liked the idea that I would be saving trees. Reducing my carbon footprint is always something I’m trying to do better.”
According to information provided by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, roughly 5 percent of Massachusetts households currently have solar energy, which works through the use of panels — typically mounted on the roof — that convert sunlight into an electrical current. Any unused energy is fed onto a regional grid and accrues credits from the utility company, alleviating costs for the homeowner during months in which less solar power is generated.
Solar energy companies provide a variety of ways to finance panel installation, including outright purchase, leasing plans, and loans. Depending on their choice, consumers often benefit from federal and state incentives, including a 30 percent federal tax credit and up to a $1,000 credit toward their state income taxes.
In April, Arundel paid $60 on her electricity bill — nearly 35 percent less than the $92 she paid in April of 2022. “But it’s not apples to apples, because I bought an electric car this year as well,” she added.
The appeal is particularly understandable given the recent spike in electricity costs. National Grid customers paid more than twice as much for electricity in the winter of 2023 as they did in 2022. For NStar/Eversource customers, the fixed-rate increase was 60 percent when comparing the first half of 2023 to the same time period in 2022.
For Jim and Alice Clark of Acton, the decision to install solar panels coincided with the need to replace their roof. Despite the fact that their yard has a lot of shade, the company they chose was able to install five panels on the roof’s south side and 13 on the west.
“Our yard is not optimal. We were predicted to meet about 50 percent of our electrical needs, but we’re actually doing a little better than that despite replacing one of our gas furnaces with a heat pump,” Jim Clark said.
The heat pump, which was installed at the same time as the solar panels (the original solar installation was delayed by a few months because of supply chain issues) means they are using electricity to replace gas, although the household still draws upon gas to heat the upstairs as well as for cooking, the clothes dryer, and hot water. “I’m very happy with the entire decision,” Clark said.
Comparing April 2022 to April 2023, when both solar panels and the heat pump were up and running, Clark identified a savings of $282 in electricity costs and $96 in gas.
Clark became so interested in the process that he registered to become a volunteer for the town, coaching other residents in installing solar or switching to heat pumps.
“Everybody is in a different spot in terms of their clean energy journey,” he said. “One person might be ready to replace their furnace with a heat pump, so their gas or oil bills will go down but their electric bill will go up. Someone else might be ready to put solar panels on their roof. How do you actually plan for the future?
“If we know how much they’re spending on gas or oil, we can anticipate how their electric needs might go up if they install a heat pump, electric car, or electric stove.”
“Every day you go without solar panels is a lost opportunity,” declared Dave Boettcher, who bought his Carlisle home in 2019 and immediately installed solar panels while also replacing the house’s 35-year-old roof. “We maxed out our roof space. Our house has heat pumps, a radon water mitigation system, and we drive electric vehicles, so we have a high load. Solar panels cover about 80 percent of it. The payback on our system should be about six years, depending on what happens with the price of electricity.”
The solar panels have reduced his monthly electric bill by an average of $250, Boettcher said.
Still, not everyone is a convert. Wayne Boenig of Walpole seriously considered switching to solar panels, but ultimately decided the time wasn’t right. “For one thing, the roof on our house is 24 years old, and a roof’s typical life expectancy is 30 years,” he said. “I don’t want to put panels on the roof if we’re going to replace it soon.”
Boenig scrutinized the numbers and wasn’t convinced that the savings made sense. “The assumption when solar companies provide you with a cost comparison is that your consumption rate is going to stay constant for several years, or grow. That’s probably true for a young family, but I have a teen, a young adult, and an 85-year-old parent in my household. We are most likely at peak consumption now and will only decrease.”
The savings, as he saw it, were likely to be a few hundred dollars a month – not enough to offset the complications. “That’s not to say that I won’t do it eventually,” he added.
Brian Jochim made the change a year ago and was pleased to see his electricity bill go down by anywhere from $150 to $330, with the most significant savings last August at the peak of air conditioning season. He’d like to switch from heating his Lexington house by oil to heat pumps in the near future as well.
“The SMART [Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target program] can be a little confusing, and I’m still trying to figure that all out,” he said. “But anyone considering solar installation has a lot of options. I’m really glad we made the change.”
One staunch believer in the benefits of clean energy is Ellie Lesser — but as a high school junior, she doesn’t yet own her own home. So instead, she advocates for public use, starting with her own school. As a copresident of the Belmont High School Climate Action Club and a member of the Belmont Energy Committee, she spearheaded a successful crusade to include solar panels in the construction budget for Belmont’s new middle and high schools.
“Solar energy will be a necessity in the future for infrastructure such as schools, libraries, and other town buildings,” she said. “Solar panels are impressive power sources that are significantly more sustainable, and are crucial to the transition to green energy. Some people see them as expensive, but ultimately they are more cost-efficient than traditional fossil fuels.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at NancySWest@gmail.com.