Rebate heats up interest

Solar panels gain with state's boost

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Gunderson
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2008

The two solar panels atop Liz Augustine's Maynard home connect to a pipe that twists down through her roof and feeds into a hot-water tank buried inside her garage.

The system produces less hot water in the winter than it does in the summer, but Augustine still rates it better than the home's previous system, which was on the verge of a breakdown last year.

"We knew we were going to spend a significant amount of money to replace it," said Augustine. "We spent a little bit more money and got solar instead."

More people are thinking along the same lines these days, after the state more than doubled the money going into a rebate program for solar panel installations. Since the revamped program - offering a total of $68 million over the next four years, for both residents and businesses - took effect in late January, the state has approved 80 new rebate applications.

Interest in the program, known as Commonwealth Solar, seems to be growing steadily, according to Emily Dahl, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the quasi-public agency that administers the rebates.

"Right now, we're getting about six to 10 applications a week," Dahl wrote in an e-mail. "And the pace seems to be increasing."

Mark Durrenberger, owner of New England Breeze, an alternative-energy contracting company, agreed, saying his Hudson-based business has gotten a flurry of calls about solar panels lately. Although the cost for panels depends on their size, he said, the rebate program makes them a lot more affordable. Plus, buyers receive federal tax credits for solar equipment, and, from his experience selling and installing them, the systems are almost maintenance free, he added.

"There's virtually nothing that can go wrong, once they go in," he said.

Between the federal tax credits and the rebate program, the cost of a $15,000 solar project can be reduced by $5,000 to $10,000, said Warren Leon, director of the Renewable Energy Trust, which provides financial assistance to clean energy projects as part of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

Two factors in particular can increase the rebate, said Leon: if the buyer is of moderate income - the biggest rebate goes to households with incomes of less than $76,296 - and if the equipment's manufacturer is based in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth Solar program is part of a concerted effort by Governor Deval Patrick to make the state a national leader in clean energies, Leon said. The administration negotiated hard with Marlborough-based Evergreen Solar, a manufacturer of solar-power products, to expand its facilities into the former Fort Devens property, a deal that was announced last month.

Patrick "really understands the importance of renewable energy," said Leon. "But he sees the economic benefits as well."

Leon said the rebate program, which derives most of its funding from a surcharge on electricity bills, provided only $6 million annually in years past. Now, the state will be dispensing $17 million each year to promote solar-power installations at businesses and residential properties, he said.

A total of $10 million of the funding will come from the Renewable Energy Trust, which collects the surcharge from electricity ratepayers. The remaining $7 million will come from penalty charges collected by the Division of Energy Resources, which taps electricity suppliers that fail to meet the state's renewable energy standards, said Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

"No taxpayer dollars are going toward this at all," emphasized Capone.

To Liz Augustine and her husband, it's money well spent. Although she declined to say just how much their new solar panels for hot water had cost, the rebate savings were such that the couple is considering taking the same route to supply some of their home's electricity as well.

"It would be especially advantageous for us to go for that now, because of that extra little kickback," she said.

E-mail Matt Gunderson at

The solar panels program is part of an effort by the governor to make Massachusetts a national leader in clean energies.



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