John Bauer and his partner wanted to install solar panels when they moved into their new home off Perry Hill Road in Waterbury last year. But they also realized much of their rooftop’s sun exposure was blocked by neighborhood trees.
Luckily, a solution to their problem emerged recently in Vermont.
Bauer learned that homeowners and businesses are no longer limited to investing in solar power on their own homes or property. They can also purchase or lease a portion of certain solar installations, called community solar arrays, on someone else’s land, even in other towns across the state. Not only is the technology of solar becoming increasingly affordable, but the number of options for joining a community solar array are also increasing. Now, the option of going solar is open to all community members regardless of whether they rent or own a home, regardless of whether they can host an array or not on their roof or in their backyard, and regardless of whether they want to own an array or simply sign up for a membership share. Going solar now simply takes a phone call.
Some of the growing list of companies that offer community solar arrays in Vermont include Green Mountain Community Solar, Green Mountain Power, Soveren Solar, and the Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective. In John’s case, he contacted SunCommon, a Waterbury business that finances and installs solar panels. Last year, the company also began leasing portions of new solar farms to homeowners across the state served by Green Mountain Power.
WL: How did this investment in community solar get started for you?
JB: We had just bought the place. We were interested in getting solar, but it’s too dark. Our neighbors have a lot of trees. Now we have 3 percent of the community solar array in New Haven. We intentionally bought more than we need now because we eventually want to install an electric heat pump to reduce our heating oil use.
WL: How does it work?
JB: We pay SunCommon a flat rate every month ($113) for the leasing of that 3 percent under a 20-year contract. You can almost think of it as Sun Common is our energy company. So my electric bill will never be higher than $113 per month.
WL: Do you get two separate bills then?
JB: Yes. My SunCommon lease payment comes out of my checking account. I get an electricity bill in the mail like everybody else. Three percent of whatever income the New Haven array generates from selling electricity is credited to our electric account. Then we get a bill from Green Mountain Power for whatever it may be. On sunny days we are generating a credit and when the panels are covered with snow we are using that credit. I look forward to getting my energy bill now.
Last month (May), it was a $95 credit, which is almost as much as we pay to SunCommon. May was great. It’s been a pretty cloudy June, so the credit will probably be less.
WL: When did your lease begin?
JB: We got in before the first of the year. The array just came online in February. Financially, I think that so far we have paid a little more than we would have without leasing the array. But I think that over the course of the full year we are going to find out that we are ahead. Our primary impulse was environmental. This is all part of having a responsible lifestyle. Our hope is to save money, but that was almost secondary.
WL: What was the process of joining like? Was it complicated?
JB: No. We basically met with someone from SunCommon who explained everything to us. It took a little while for the credits to start showing up on our energy bill. Green Mountain Power had to catch up since there were so many people participating in community solar arrays coming online at once. It was really straightforward. The only thing that really gave us pause is that you sign a 20-year lease contract. I’m 58 years old. Plus I may well move before that. SunCommon said that there is a lot of demand for this and that if you happened to move they will do everything they can to place the panels we leased with someone or help you to sell it with your house.
WL: How did you decide how many panels to lease?
JB: The nice thing about SunCommon is that they will do the analysis for you. You don’t have to sort through how much of your electricity use is peak use versus off-peak and all of that. Green Mountain Power was very helpful too because we just moved in. They gave us access to the previous owner’s usage history. So we came up with a pretty good guess.
WL: Are you able to track your energy savings in real time?
JB: There is a whole Web site that is devoted to doing that. I don’t look at it that often.
WL: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
JB: What you have to understand is that the cost of materials for solar panels is dropping dramatically even by the month. It’s not going to be long before it will be cheaper to have a solar panel than to burn gas. I just want to re-enforce that even if it’s not a completely break-even proposition now, it will be soon. Anyone can be solar-powered now. The problem has been affordability. Now it is affordable.
The joke around our house is we say, “I’m going to go turn on the solar-powered washing machine” or “I’m going to use the solar-powered blender.” It’s a good feeling. And I didn’t have to beg any of my neighbors to cut down the beautiful oak trees that surround my property. The financing is easy. It’s a beautiful thing."