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Local Company Offers Powerful Benefit

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Ivy Computer's solar array
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Waterbury LEAP

Source: Waterbury Local Energy Action Partnership (LEAP)

There’s more to benefits than health care and paid vacation days for employees of Ivy Computer, a software and website design firm located in Waterbury Center. Company founder George Pierce also offers his roughly 20-member staff a discount on purchasing renewable energy.

The arrangement is possible due to the combination of a new solar array installation in front of Ivy Computer’s offices near the Waterbury Festival Playhouse and Vermont’s group net metering policy.

Net metering allows a residential or commercial renewable energy facility to sell energy for credits from their electric company. The policy also supports sharing those credits among multiple customers. The only restriction is that the same electric company must serve both the energy facility and the individual or business accounts that get assigned the credits.

Ivy Computers was approved for a 50-kilowatt system last October. Pierce and his staff built the solar array themselves. It went active in December. The state Public Utility Commission okayed an additional 60 kilowatts in September, which is now under construction. Pierce hopes to have it operating by the end of the year.

Pierce discussed the solar installations and his employee energy benefit in an interview as part of an occasional Waterbury LEAP series of conversations about energy-saving technologies and practices. Below is an edited transcript.

What prompted you to invest in solar energy?

I am building a net-zero house in Waterbury. The group net metering option allows me to use the electricity produced for both the house and the business. This location has far better solar gain than the house site.

In the office, the 50-kilowatt array has allowed us to decommission one oil furnace and replace it with air-to-air heat pumps. The electricity bill for the business is now zero. Plus we are using solar electricity as a benefit for employees. Ultimately, we will make enough power to supply any of the employees who want it, as long as they are Green Mountain Power customers. We are making the credits available to neighbors as well.

How does the solar electricity employee benefit work?

We make the credits available for employees at a 25-percent discount. So, for example, if power costs 20 cents a kilowatt-hour, employees can purchase a kilowatt-hour credit for 15 cents.

There are two ways you can assign credits. You can do it by order of priority, meaning one customer uses all they need and the remaining credits go to someone else until they get all they need and so on. We do it differently, by percentage of the electricity produced. Different users receive a different percentage of the total, depending on how much energy they decide they need.

Is the group net metering working out so far?

It works okay once it’s all in place. Getting it all set up initially was cumbersome. There were a lot of emails back and forth.

And you installed the whole thing soup-to-nuts yourself?

Yes. We just had a build weekend last Saturday (for the 60-kilowatt array). We had a half dozen people there. We got together and assembled some of the solar panels. We use it as a group-bonding project.

Is it really that easy?

Once you understand the basics, it really isn’t all that complex. It’s doing the same thing a whole bunch of times. A company came in to drive in the supporting framework, the posts, into the ground. We’ll mount the panels ourselves. The first array was done over the course of three weekends.

How expensive has the project been?

The payback time for us is less than two years. Commercial installations are in a whole different world financially from residential installations.

There are financial benefits in terms of depreciation. You can deduct financing costs. The ability to expense out a lot of it mixed with the state and federal tax credits really make solar quite affordable for businesses. That is why you see all these installations.

Also, I subscribe to the philosophy that you should buy the cheapest solar panels out there. If they are a little less efficient, it’s not that much less. We went with the static system because less moving parts means less maintenance.

Do you have any advice for other business owners who want to invest in renewable energy?

It is really good to find someone who has been through it before. The commercial installers definitely bring that advantage. There is a lot of research we did that could really be saved if you work with someone who knows the process. That would simplify things.

How much did you save doing it yourself?

I would say it cost us about two-thirds what it would have if we had the installation contracted out.

Are you producing the amount of electricity that you expected?

We’re actually running ahead of what we expected. We did our calculations with pretty conservative numbers.

Anything else about your experience that you think it would be useful for someone else to know?

Initially it can be very distracting. The panels themselves are very boring to watch. They just sit there. But you find yourself watching the online meter reporting. You’ll see the sun go up and pull up the online meter just to see how much energy you’re producing.