WILLIAMSTOWN -- Twenty-nine residents have signed contracts through Solarize Mass, a state-run program that utilizes community partnerships to offer reduced rates for solar installation. Those contracts amount to about 175kW of solar capacity, bringing Williamstown within reach of the lowest energy rates available in the program's five-tiered pricing system.
If Williamstown reaches 200kW (tier five) by Sept. 30, when the sign-up period for Solarize Mass ends and installations are expected to begin, participants will pay only $3.44 per watt for solar energy.
A typical residential solar installation in Massachusetts generates about 5kW per year, with savings of around $2,000 (including income from solar renewable energy certificates, available through the state).
Matt Kakley, of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which along with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources oversees the Solarize Mass program, was optimistic that Williamstown would reach tier five. Of the nine other towns participating in the current round, he said, only Northampton and Medway have reached tier five. Williamstown and Lee are at tier four.
Kakley said Real Goods Solar, the town's designated solar installer (also the installer for Lee and Northampton) has already performed 132 site visits in town. He said about 235 residents had expressed an initial interest in the program.
Opportunities for the community to learn about the program and sign up for site assessments have been taking place since
"It's been very steady, and we still have a lot of new inquiries coming in," said Wendy Penner of the Williamstown COOL (C02 Lowering) Committee, which had taken part in the application process and is coordinating the local efforts. She said a second "solar open house" will likely be held once the first installations are completed.
All of the contracts must be signed by Sept. 30, Kakley said, "so there is a big push from the installers to do site assessments and do contracting during that period. And then the focus kind of shifts more towards installations."
Community partnerships are an integral part of the program, Penner said. The Zilkha Center at Williams College, the Center for Eco Technology and several local businesses (including Wild oats Market, Williamstown Savings Bank and Images Cinema) are among the groups that have helped to organize events and spread the word.
Jake Laughner, the town's "solar coach," who serves as the initial point of contact for the Clean Energy Center, said the state provides a marketing budget for the program, but the real savings come from a group-buying model that allows installers to offer highly competitive rates. The state in turn benefits by advancing its renewable energy initiative.
According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, the price of solar installations in Massachusetts dropped 28 percent in 2012 - the second biggest drop nationwide. Gov. Deval Patrick's 2011 goal of installing 250kW of solar energy by 2017 was surpassed this year, Kakley said, and was increased to 1,600 megawatts by 2020. As of the end of July, 289 megawatts of solar capacity had been installed statewide, enough to power about 44,000 homes.
Relatively high electricity costs in the Northeast, combined with progressive incentive programs has made solar energy an attractive option in the state, Laughner said. At present, solar energy "is affordable to the point where you can actually do it with no money down. So there has really never been a better time to do this."
But there also are indications that the price will not continue to drop, he said, "and there are a number of things conspiring to have some of those prices - the cost of solar panels, for example - start to edge back up again. So Williamstown is kind of hitting the sweet spot right now in terms of a fabulous incentive program."
Several installation options are available through Solarize Mass. In addition to the direct purchasing option, leasing agreements allow residents and businesses to work with Real Goods Solar to determine a competitive rate to pay for the electricity once the panels are installed.
Another option, which Penner and others hope to pursue, is that of a community solar array, such as the one recently installed in Harvard, Mass. People interested in solar power, but who do not have an ideal site, could potentially tap into an offsite "solar garden." Penner said the COOL Committee was in the preliminary stages of locating a site and figuring out how that option might work in Williamstown.
"That will be, I'm sure, our next project that we look at - how can we study that more carefully and start evaluating a plan," she said. "That is something I would like to see happen."