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Residents take advantage of solar benefits

Dec. 9, 2010

By Tim Simard
Observer staff
Mike Isham stands in front of an AllSun Tracker solar panel on his property. Williston residents have until the end of the month to take advantage of discounted solar panel purchases. (File photo)

With acres and acres of open space that receive bright sunshine on the clearest of days, Jim McCullough called the decision to go solar at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center an easy one. McCullough, the owner of the nonprofit four-season facility, said he’d been thinking about adding cost-cutting solar power for a long time, but high expenses made the prospect unaffordable.

When the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, also known as VPIRG, announced in September a limited-time solar benefit program that offered huge discounts for Williston and St. George residents, McCullough immediately contacted the nonprofit organization.

“The costs have been brought way, way down,” said McCullough, who is also one of Williston’s state representatives. “They (VPIRG) have dreamed up a great program.”

McCullough was so impressed by VPIRG’s initiative that he offered up Catamount land for residents to lease for their own personal solar panels. Located near a Green Mountain Power line, McCullough hopes this “solar orchard” will be a viable alternative for people whose property doesn’t see as much sunlight as Catamount.

The lease costs would benefit Catamount, while the solar electricity would benefit the homeowner. McCullough said he needs 12 solar panels to complete the orchard and make the project financially feasible for everybody involved. McCullough, along with his wife Lucy, committed to two solar trackers; another Williston resident pledged for a third. McCullough is looking for nine more commitments.

“It’s sort of like minimum enrollment for a class,” he said. “Otherwise, we can’t get this up and running.”

Duane Peterson, president and co-director of VPIRG, calls McCullough’s efforts “brilliant” and is working to find residents interested in the orchard lease program.

“We’re going to help him promote this as much as we can,” Peterson said.

VPIRG, an environmental and consumer advocacy organization, announced earlier this year that Williston and St. George would be one of Vermont’s first “solar communities.” By consolidating efforts between credit unions, alternative energy companies and utilities, VPIRG arranged it so residents in these solar communities could receive large cost reductions when investing in solar power.

“There used to be a lot of people who wanted to go solar who, for all the right seasons, thought it was ridiculously expensive,” Peterson said. “Well, we’re trying to change that.”

Along with Williston, Waterbury has also become a solar community. The neighboring towns of Duxbury and Moretown are also included. All areas are serviced by Green Mountain Power, which pays customers 6 cents per kilowatt hour produced by solar power.

Peterson said in the 11 weeks since the project started, 15 homeowners in Williston committed to new solar installations. He expects further commitments as the program finishes at the end of the month.

Making solar affordable

In offering the deep discounts to residents, VPIRG partnered with solar panel manufacturers Alteris Renewables and AllEarth Renewables.

VPIRG asked solar companies within Vermont to create proposals for the solar communities project. Peterson said VPIRG received an enormous amount of interest from local renewable energy businesses. It chose Alteris and AllEarth for a mix of reasons, including marketplace reputations, quality of the equipment and costs to consumers, Peterson said.

Williston-based AllEarth Renewables constructs the AllSun Trackers, panels that follow the path of the sun through satellite technology and are situated apart from a building. McCullough plans to install the trackers in his solar orchard.

Alteris, a New England company, builds fixed-roof solar panels. It’s these panels that Myra Boenke and Bill Haller are installing on their home. Theirs is the first home installation with VPIRG’s initiative, with Alteris workers mounting the panels this week.

Resident Dave Lord is also getting Alteris solar panels installed on his porch roof. His property receives abundant sunlight and he always planned to add solar power to his home when the price was right.

“For me, it makes financial sense and it just seems like the right thing to do,” Lord said.

VPIRG is also working with VSECU, formerly known as the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, which until recently only offered its services to state employees. Residents who work with VSECU can receive further discounts through loan programs.

Through the savings offered by VPIRG and Green Mountain Power’s solar payment program, Peterson believes residents who go solar will end up paying roughly the same amount in monthly costs as home and business owners do for their electric bills.

VPIRG’s program wraps up at the end of the month, so now is the time for residents to contact the nonprofit with questions about solar products, Peterson said. In addition, more than $1 million in federal funds are expected to be added to a state solar rebate program that recently exhausted all its reserves. Those rebates could save homeowners thousands of dollars, Peterson added.

“If those thousands in savings are the key for people to go solar, then now’s the time,” he said.