Unleashing the Power of the Sun

Solar energy is slowly making its way into South Shore communities

By Pamela Ellertson | Photography by Chris Bernstein

Appearing like sleek, seamless sheets of black onyx, solar panels are bringing sustainable energy to increasing numbers of South Shore communities. Their uses range from modest purposes, such as powering the traffic signs that flash the speed limit on the highway, to larger arrays located atop capped landfills and on the roofs of local retailers.

But it is not just big business and municipalities investing in renewable, clean energy from the sun. Currently nearly 245,000 Massachusetts homes harness solar energy.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), they are motivated, in part, by installation and material costs that have dropped over 65 percent in the last five years. The extension of federal and state tax incentives and the ability for homeowners to be compensated in the form of credits for any excess energy they collect also played a large role in Massachusetts placing seventh on the SEIA’s Top 10 Solar States list in 2016.

SolarCity installed a 22-panel solar energy system on this 2,200-square-foot home in Cohasset.

Weighing the Benefits of Solar

For Cohasset resident Kao Li, it took a while to make the decision to install a solar energy system. A zoologist by training, Li says, “I looked into it two years ago and at the time the programs were not as good.” In the spring of 2017, he decided the time was right to make the investment. He is hoping the solar panels he had installed on his 2,200-square-foot home that he shares with his wife and two teenagers will cover his entire electric bill. Li, who is retired, and his family use electricity in typical ways, powering home appliances like the refrigerator and computers, resulting in an average monthly bill of $100. But they also have some unique energy demands. In their basement there are five fish tanks that are heated during the winter to the optimal temperature required for farming tilapia for personal consumption—it’s literally a homegrown aquaculture project. The family also raises chickens, composts and recycles. The fact that solar energy was friendly for the environment definitely factored into Li’s decision to go solar. He paid approximately $19,000 to SolarCity for the installation of 22 panels on his home. The panels cover about 85 percent of the roof.

Retired zoologist Kao Li hopes the solar panels on his Cohasset home will help power the five tilapia tanks he has in his basement.

When asked whether he was concerned about the aesthetic impact the panels might have on his home, Li says, “I wondered how it would look, but the shade of the panels is very similar to the color of the roof tiles. The profile is low and it doesn’t stick out as an eyesore.”

Brian Molisse, owner of Molisse Realty Group which has offices in Marshfield, Weymouth, Scituate and Manchester-by-the-Sea, agrees with Li. “The way they are built now, they blend in with the property.” But Molisse points out that it is important for homeowners to thoroughly research solar providers and read contracts in their entirety—even have an attorney look them over—to avoid possible issues that may have an adverse effect on a home’s value.

“Every house that faces in the right directions should have their own solar, but that’s not everybody,” Judeth Van Hamm, president of the environmental advocacy group Sustainable South Shore believes. Certain factors, such as having a less-than-desirable orientation to the sun, might preclude adding solar panels to a roof. Structural integrity, the shading situation in the yard, historical preservation restrictions, and whether the resident owns the home are all factors that come into play when considering whether a home is a candidate for rooftop solar panels.

For those homes with the right conditions, there are a multitude of financial incentives to offset the cost of a system. On the federal level, the Investment Tax Credit, or ITC, enables homeowners to deduct 30 percent of the cost of a solar energy system from their federal taxes. This particular incentive was scheduled to expire last year but was extended until 2019. After 2019, the allowable deductions decrease over the next three years.

Two big incentives are offered in Massachusetts. Net metering credits are available to residential solar energy producers whose systems produce more energy than they use. They also have the ability to sell Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, which a system earns as it generates power.

Net metering is beneficial to homeowners when their system harnesses more energy from the sun than they actually use. On cloudier days, when the solar system is not producing sufficient energy to power the home, most systems automatically switch over to the traditional power grid to fill the gap. When this happens, the home’s electric meter runs forward tracking the usage drawn. When the sun is providing enough energy for the home’s electrical needs, however, the meter runs backwards. Over time, if the home produces more energy from the sun than it draws from the grid, homeowners are issued credits to use against future energy bills. A spokesperson for SolarCity explained it like this, “Some folks will go on vacation during a sunny month, so they will have a credit on their May bill, but in August when they use a lot of air conditioning, they will use up that credit.”

Another slightly more complicated but lucrative incentive available to people whose homes generate solar power is the ability to earn—and sell—Solar Renewable Energy Certificates.

Realizing Your Solar Potential

Homeowners earn one SREC for every 1000 kilowatt hours (kWhs) produced by their solar panel system. According to the website Energy Sage, an SREC can be worth as much as $300 in certain markets. SRECs exist as a result of a regulation known as the renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Renewable portfolio standards are state laws that require utilities to produce a specific percentage of their electricity from renewable resources.”

The homeowner can then sell the SRECs they earn to the utility companies.

There are about as many factors influencing incentives, and the extent to which they benefit homeowners, as there are incentives. Consequentially the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center writes in their Massachusetts Guide to Residential Electricity, “Homeowners considering solar electric systems are advised to consult a professional to determine if the potential project would be eligible for available tax incentives, how these tax incentives may impact one another and the taxability of any revenues received for a project. System paybacks will vary depending on the net system cost.

Homeowners are encouraged to discuss the financial aspects of owning a solar electric system with their installer and any other expert.”

According to the MCEC, most homeowners recoup their investment within six to eight years with credits and incentives. For those wishing to avoid the upfront costs of a system, power purchasing agreements (PPAs) are an alternative. The SEIA explains PPAs as, “a financial agreement where a developer arranges for the design, permitting, financing and installation of a solar energy system on a customer’s property at little to no cost. The developer sells the power generated to the host customer at a fixed rate that is typically lower than the local utility’s retail rate.”

After doing the research, people might decide to install to solar energy systems for reasons both ideological and practical.

“The whole solar thing is not just about saving money on your bill,” says Hamm, it’s getting out of all these carbon emissions that are trashing our earth—but it’s got to make sense to you financially.”

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