Williamstown integrates Solarize Mass

September 25, 2013 by Matthew Borin, Contributing Writer

Williamstown reached the fifth and final pricing tier in the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Solarize Mass project with 41 contracts and 254 anticipated kilowatts of solar electricity as of Sept. 13.

Solarize Mass aims to promote the installation of solar panels among homeowners and small businesses by focusing its efforts on community outreach and offering rebates for those who install solar panels. The program also offers tiered pricing: As more and more people in the community sign on to install, the discounts increase. Tier Five requires over 200 kilowatts of contracted capacity and results in a 29 percent discount from Real Goods Solar, the contractor a town committee selected.

“We thought we had a good shot at reaching Tier Two and maybe Tier Three going in,” Wendy Penner, the chair of Williamstown’s Carbon Dioxide Lowering Committee, said. “But now we’ve surpassed Tier Five.”

Williamstown is one of 10 communities currently participating in Solarize Mass. While three others reached Tier Five, Williamstown’s 41 contracts is second only to Northampton’s 59, although Williamstown’s population is smaller by about 20,000 people.

“The state is working to fulfill Governor [Deval] Patrick’s goal. He initially aimed back in 2007 to have 250 megawatts of residential and commercial solar energy installed by 2017,” Matt Kakley of the Clean Energy Center said. “We’ve already surpassed that number so now the new goal is to reach 1600 megawatts by 2020. Solarize Mass helps realize that goal.”

The three-year program, which began in 2011, will be completed on Sept. 30. Anyone hoping to take advantage of the discount Solarize provides must sign a contract by then. The town held an open house last Sunday in hopes of convincing those still deciding whether or not to install solar panels to take advantage of the program. After Sept. 30, Solarize will select a new set of communities and Williamstown will not be eligible to participate again.

Applying for a spot in Solarize is a competitive process. Towns must demonstrate the presence of a strong volunteer base that can help promote the program. The College partnered with Williamstown in submitting an application, promising to support the volunteer efforts. The Zilkha Center provided Williamstown with a computer for the program as well as a donation to help pay the town’s solar coach, Jake Laughner. The Zilkha Center also hosted a panel on solar power over the summer. The College cannot participate in Solarize, which is intended for homeowners and small businesses owners, but has its own plans for a solar initiative.

“We’re negotiating an arrangement called a power purchase agreement where the panels would be on Williams College land and roofs, but we wouldn’t own the panels,” Amy Johns, interim director of the Zilkha Center, said. “Many of the incentives at the state and federal level for solar PV [photovoltaic] come in the form of tax credits, which Williams can’t take advantage of due to our non-profit status. So instead, a third party partner owns the panels, takes advantage of the incentives, and gives us a good price on the electricity from the panels for the next 15 or 20 years … If it works out, it would be around 500 kilowatts.”

One goal of Solarize is that people will continue to invest in solar power even after the program ends in Williamstown. “Towns can only go through the program with us once, but we’ve seen communities like Boston doing a second round themselves,” Kakely said. “People become more familiar with solar, they see the panels around the neighborhood and talk about it with their friends and family. We’ve actually seen increases in adoption of solar power, huge booms in installation, after the program is over.”

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