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Williston to become ‘solar community’

Sept. 23, 2010

By Greg Duggan
Observer staff
Sally Fellows plays with her dog outside her house on Christmas Lane, where she installed solar panels on her roof three years ago. (Observer photo by Greg Duggan)

Williston is set to become one of Vermont’s first two “solar communities” on Thursday, giving residents an opportunity to capitalize on steep discounts for investing in solar power.

The nonprofit Vermont Public Interest Research Group, or VPIRG, has partnered with solar panel manufacturers AllEarth Renewables and Alteris Renewables to launch solar communities in Williston and Waterbury. Both towns are served by Green Mountain Power, which allows residents and business owners who invest in solar to take advantage of a reimbursement program from the energy provider: Green Mountain Power pays customers 6 cents per kilowatt hour generated by solar panels.

“A core historic interest at VPIRG is producing renewable energy in Vermont,” said Duane Peterson, president of the consumer and environmental advocacy organization and co-director of VPIRG Energy. “This is our effort to help Vermonters get renewable energy.”

Solar Williston will kick off with a press conference on Thursday morning at the Christmas Lane home of Sally Fellows. The Williston resident installed solar panels on her roof about three years ago.

Peterson said VPIRG came up with the idea for solar communities after speaking with tens of thousands of Vermont citizens. Residents expressed interest in solar power, Peterson said, but have a hard time figuring out the specifics of choosing a company to work with, obtaining permits and finding the money to purchase solar panels.

As part of the solar community efforts in Williston and Waterbury, Peterson expects to work with various groups and town bodies including selectboards, parent teacher organizations and churches.

“I’ll be standing in front of lots of rooms, lots of living rooms, explaining how this is easy and affordable,” Peterson said.

Interested consumers can set up a site visit where a technician will measure the solar capability of the home or business. Based on energy consumption, the home or business owner can then decide to pursue fixed-roof solar panels from Alteris or AllEarth Renewables’ AllSun Trackers, panels that sit on poles on the ground and rotate with the path of the sun.

During the four-month period in which Williston and Waterbury will be solar communities, Alteris and AllEarth Renewables will offer discounts on their respective systems. Combined with federal and state tax rebates, and Green Mountain Power’s program that pays customers 6 cents per kilowatt hour produced by solar, Peterson claims the monthly payment for a solar system will be about the same amount that residents and business owners pay for electricity.

“We are happy that we found a good way to encourage customers to install solar in a way that was economic for all of our customers to do so,” said Dotty Schnure, spokesperson for Green Mountain Power. The company has had the rebate program in place for several years.

Peterson said the solar panels have a lifespan of approximately 25 years.

“This is a green initiative that is good for the planet and good for the pocketbook,” Peterson said.

Already committed

While VPIRG wants to spread solar power throughout Williston and Waterbury, some residents have already happily taken the plunge.

One of those residents, Sally Fellows, offered her home as the site of the Solar Williston launch event. Fellows installed solar panels and a thermal panel — which heats water in her home — on her roof after she retired three years ago.

“I just feel like we should be responsible for being here on earth, you know,” she said.

She said used state and federal incentives to cover 35 percent or 40 percent of the cost of the panels.

“I’m really happy I did it,” she said, noting that the solar panels cover all of her electricity use for about six months of the year, and about half her energy consumption during the other six months. “I love it. I’m very happy with the whole system.”

Fellows is even considering installing a few more panels on a small structure — she called it a clubhouse — next to her home.

Like Fellows, Mike Isham also used tax credits to support his solar investment. Late last month, Isham had two AllSun Trackers installed at Isham Family Farm on Oak Hill Road. So far, he’s happy with the purchase, and expects it to cover two-thirds of energy used on the farm, with its barns, sugarhouse and four living quarters.

“It’s the future. I think it’s important we set good examples,” Isham said.

Kevin Batson, a member of Williston Green Initiatives, worked with VPIRG when the organization wanted to connect with local groups to introduce the idea of a solar community in Williston. As a member of the Planning Commission, Batson brought the concept to the commission. Despite VPIRG having little information at that point in the process, Batson said the Planning Commission was intrigued by the concept of making it easy and affordable for home and business owners to invest in solar. He said commission members wanted to make sure the selection process was fair for interested residents, but supported Williston as a solar community if the town didn’t need to take on any liability.

“It’s a very attractive idea. We’re lucky to be the first town to give this a try,” Batson said. “I’m very interested myself.”

For more information about Solar Williston, visit www.vpirgenergy.org or www.solarwilliston.org, or call 223-5221 x8420.