Growing up in the 1980s, Amy Cafazzo remembers her parents investigating what it would take to mount solar panels on their home’s roof to take a bite out of their energy bills. The expense was too great, so the plan fizzled out.
Fast forward to the present, and Amy and her husband, Mark, are a month and a half into generating most of their household electricity through 21 solar panels mounted on the garage attached to their Hopkinton home.
“I was gung-ho on solar even before the contractor came out to do an assessment,” said Amy, who was the first homeowner in Hopkinton to sign up this year for a state-organized program that encouraged solar-electric installations through group purchases. “It absolutely is a long-term investment, but if you are going to be in your house for eight to 10 years with no plans to go anywhere, it makes sense.”
The Cafazzos are among the 803 families and businesses across the state that took advantage of discounted pricing to have solar arrays installed through Solarize Massachusetts, an incentive program run through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Department of Energy Resources.
The Solarize Hopkinton program signed up 56 homes and businesses to install solar arrays capable of generating a total of 368 kilowatts — well beyond the 250-kilowatt threshold needed to qualify for the deepest discounts.
“I would say this was a huge success,” said Andy Boyce, chairman of Hopkinton’s Sustainable Green Committee and volunteer solar coach. “In the end, the premium is the carbon coming out of the air we all breathe.”
Through a combination of bulk purchasing, state and federal tax breaks, and rebates, Solarize Massachusetts has added 5.1 megawatts of solar power to the state’s energy mix, or enough electricity to run 807 homes for a year, according to the Mass. Clean Energy Center’s director, Alicia Barton McDevitt.
The effort grew out of a pilot program involving four communities — Harvard, Hatfield, Scituate, and Winchester — last year. Barton McDevitt said the pilot proved two points: Homeowners are more likely to buy into solar power if the state reaches out to them directly, and economies of scale can bring the initial cost of installing solar photovoltaic arrays to an affordable level.
“What we saw were exactly those two things. We had great success in driving down the cost and encouraging the adoption of solar power,” Barton McDevitt said.
The program expanded this year to 17 cities and towns already designated by the Department of Energy Resources as Green Communities for meeting certain clean-energy benchmarks, including a commitment to reducing energy use by 20 percent.
“For the 17 communities that participated this year, every one of them doubled the amount of small-scale solar projects in their towns,” said Barton McDevitt.
The participants include Arlington, which led the field by signing up 157 residents and businesses to contracts expected to generate 718 kilowatts of electricity, and neighbors Lincoln, Sudbury, and Wayland, which formed a collaborative effort in which 137 new solar arrays are expected to generate 1.28 megawatts of power.
The other communities statewide in this year’s program are Acton, Boston, Lenox, Melrose, Mendon, Millbury, Montague, Newburyport, Palmer, Pittsfield, Sutton, and Shirley.
Many other communities have expressed interest in taking part in the next round of solar incentives, but state officials are not expected to decide whether to continue or to expand the Solarize Massachusetts program until early next year, Barton McDevitt said. One of the key incentives driving the program is the Commonwealth Solar II rebate program, which expires in June.
Solar-power use has grown significantly in Massachusetts over the last five years, with the total amount of electricity generated from the sun going from 4 megawatts to this year’s figure of 176 megawatts — enough to power 27,837 homes. Governor Deval Patrick has set a goal of having 250 megawatts of solar-generated power on tap by 2017.
Under the Solarize program, participants have the choice of buying or leasing systems, with the cost based on a five-tiered pricing system that gets less expensive as more people in a community sign up. Both options reduce the price of electricity significantly, Barton McDevitt said.
In Hopkinton, which attained the biggest discount, the average leased system reduces electricity costs from 15 cents per kilowatt-hour to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, Barton McDevitt said. Participants who bought their systems eventually will see a 35 percent drop in power costs, once rebates and other incentives are factored in, she said.
Brian Shulman hadn’t considered putting solar panels on his family’s garrison-style Colonial home before he attended an informational meeting about Solarize Hopkinton in the spring. After considering the federal tax credits, state rebates, and bulk-buying discount, Shulman said, the decision to mount 24 solar panels on the roof of his 1,900-square-foot home was “a no-brainer.”
“It is not only a great thing environmentally, but a smart financial decision in the long term,” Shulman said. “It became a financial decision — it is a pricy thing to do but the payback is not that long in coming, given the rebates in place now and the preferred pricing we got through the group buying. Hopkinton got to the lowest tier of pricing, which shaved almost $2,000 off the system.”
The Shulmans’ 6-kilowatt system was the first of 56 photovoltaic-power arrays to be installed in Hopkinton through the program’s Framingham-based contractor, SolarFlair Energy Inc. Shulman said he used a home- equity line of credit to finance the system, which had a discounted price tag of $23,000, but will end up paying closer to $12,000 once the rebates kick in. One-third of the installation price can be recovered through credits on federal income taxes, while Massachusetts kicks in a $2,500 rebate on the small-scale solar energy setup, he said.
The solar systems rely on a net metering system that records both energy consumed and energy pumped back into the electrical grid. During the day, when power consumption is less and the sun’s rays are strongest, the power generated by the solar array can offset the times when usage exceeds the electricity from the panels.
The Shulmans’ power needs are lower than average — an energy assessment performed as part of the program found the family of four used 5,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the last year — so the panels are anticipated to cover their electrical needs.
“We have a couple of toys, like our 51-inch TV, but we are pretty good about turning off lights when we are not in the room,” Shulman said. “These 24 panels should cover our energy needs as long as our consumption does not increase.”
But what Shulman and Cafazzo both are counting on is the potential payback from Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, which homeowners earn for every megawatt of power they sell back to utilities that need to show they use solar power. In Massachusetts, the state has set a floor of $285 for SRECs, but Shulman said they trade in the $300 to $600 range.
“We were the first system to go up in Hopkinton. I was eager to get ahead of the curve. I wanted to build up the credits as soon as possible,” Shulman said.