WILLIAMSTOWN -- Starting this spring, Solarize Mass will allow 10 communities across Massachusetts to more fully utilize the state's growing solar industry and incorporate cleaner technologies into their homes and businesses. The program brings together a network of community partnerships that will work together with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, which oversee the program.
In 2012, residents and businesses in the state signed contracts for 749 solar installations, amounting to 4.8 megawatts of electricity - enough to power 719 homes in Massachusetts for one year.
The initial phase of the program will involve outreach, education and marketing, and the first installations will likely begin in the fall. Meg Lusardi, Director of Green Communities at DOER, who helped oversee the application process earlier this year, said the initial phase varies from town to town, depending on what resources are available.
"In Williamstown they talked about things like the farmers market and the Summer Sundays outdoor public festivals," she said, adding that during the application process, the town had identified an existing level of interest in
With guidance from the Williamstown COOL (C02 Lowering) Committee, Center for EcoTechnology and several other community partners, the town will organize ongoing educational workshops during the spring and summer. The first will be on April 21 at the Congregational Church, when Jake Laughner, who will serve as the town's "solar coach," will give a talk about the program.
Once people have signed up, the town will work with MassCEC and DOER to solicit and select a solar installation company that will provide subsidized services for the town. A deadline for signing up has not yet been announced.
Lusardi explained that since Massachusetts is at the end of the energy "pipeline" and must import all of its fossil fuel from places like Canada, South America and the Middle East, it has a strong incentive to develop domestically sourced, clean technology. "One of the things that you have to keep in mind is that we as a general rule have very high electricity prices here in Massachusetts," she said.
Through a variety of rebates, tax incentives, and now through Solarize Mass, the state's efforts to increase domestically sourced energy are paying off. According to the Solar Energies Industry Association, the cost of residential solar electricity in the state dropped 28 percent in 2012 because of Solarize Mass. The state's goal of installing 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017 will likely be surpassed this year.
Solarize Mass began as a pilot program in 2011, with four towns from each region in the state having been selected at random after submitting applications of interest. Building on that experience, the state initiated a formal application process in 2012 and selected 17 communities to participate. Among them were Pittsfield and Lee, whose enthusiasm for Solarize Mass caught the attention of many in Williamstown.
"That was encouraging," said Nancy Nylen, a member of the COOL Committee, who along with Town Manager Peter Fohlin; Public Works Director Timothy Kaiser; Wendy Penner, chair of the COOL Committee and others, took part in the application process. "There was such a positive reception and there was so much interest," she said. "I went to the first information session and I think there were a hundred and fifty people there. So it was very, very positive."
Solarize Mass complements the town's ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency, she said. In 2001, the Board of Selectmen endorsed a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and joined the international Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. The COOL Committee was formed in 2002, chaired by Jane Allen, currently the vice-chair of the Board of Selectmen.
"We came up with a climate action plan for the town," Nylen said. "And some of the actions the town is promoting are energy efficiency and renewable energy. So the Solarize program supports something that's been going on for over 10 years."
In 2011, Williamstown was awarded a $142,000 Green Communities Grant, which it used to install a nearly-10-kilowatt solar array at Eastlawn Cemetery. Eight of the ten participating towns in the most recent round of Solarize Mass are Green Communities, but the state no longer requires that of its applicants.
"Williamstown as a Green Community has done a lot to demonstrate its commitment to reducing climate change and to the green energy sector," said Lusardi. In addition to already having some photovoltaic panels installed, and working to improve energy efficiency in schools and other town buildings, a network of grassroots environmental organizations (such as Hoosic River Watershed Association, the Center for EcoTechnology and Berkshire Environmental Action Team) have been doing local outreach for several years.
Another initiative supported in Williamstown is National Grid's GreenUp program, which allows residents and small businesses to sign up for green power on their electricity bills. For 2.4 cents per kilowatt hour, the company will match 100 percent of a customer's electric usage with renewable energy. "So for 10 to 15 dollars a month people can green their electricity and it's tax-deductible," Nylen said.
As energy initiatives continue to take hold in the community more people are becoming interested in installing solar systems in their homes. And with the price of solar panels dropping every year, solar power has become a more attractive option.
"But a big emphasis of the COOL committee all along has been to promote energy efficiency," Nylen said, "and so in fact to go through [Solarize Mass] to get solar you also are required to go through and get an energy assessment as well so that you've taken a look at where [the building] can become more energy efficient." Energy assessments are free for all residents through Mass Save.
The idea, she said, is that "if you bring your electric load down in your house through efficiency, then your solar installation will provide a higher percentage of your electricity. Then you would size your solar system to match your electric load. So we promote to do them hand-in-hand: You bring down your electric load and then you match that load with your solar."
Participants in Solarize Mass can choose between owning and leasing a solar installation. Through the leasing model, residents or businesses work with the installer to determine a competitive rate to pay for the electricity once the panels are installed.
Nylen looked to Harvard, Mass. as an example of how solar panels can be utilized jointly by members of a community. Many of the houses in Harvard faced away from the sun or were shaded by trees, she said.
"So they went forward with something called a solar garden." That entailed setting "up a community solar array, so that people who couldn't put it on their own home could invest in it on a different site and get the electricity from that site," she said. "So we're interested in exploring that possibility in Williamstown as well."
According to Lusardi, the state's aspirations for Solarize Mass go beyond economic and environmental benefits. "It's also just about increasing the education and the understanding of solar," she said. What's great about the program "is that it's a grassroots model, so it's implemented at the community level It's neighbors talking to neighbors about what they are doing, communicating the benefits of clean energy It's a community-beneficial model, it's also an educational model."
The next Solarize Mass application cycle will begin in the fall, when Lusardi expects another eight to ten communities to join the program.