Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Connecticut Solar Program Being Discontinued

A leasing program for rooftop solar panels that made Connecticut a leader in green energy is being discontinued for lack of funds.

Dale Hedman, director of project development at the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which provided money for the program, said Friday that he was sending a letter to Connecticut's burgeoning ranks of solar-panel installers saying his agency will stop accepting applications for residential users Dec. 31.

The Clean Energy Fund is an independent state agency that supports alternative energy projects and education programs about green energy.

The solar-leasing program is funded by a mandatory checkoff on all ratepayer bills that generates about $29 million a year for renewable energy projects. It was designed, in part, to offset the historic disadvantage that Connecticut has against Midwestern and Western states that have abundant resources like coal and hydropower that keep electricity rates low.

Under the leasing program, about a third of the cost of buying a home solar system was defrayed with Clean Energy Fund money, making it possible for homeowners to lease the system without putting any money down. But, after about 750 homes across the state were approved for the program, the funds supporting the leases are almost exhausted and the Clean Energy Fund has no immediate plans to extend the program.

Solar panel installers, many of whose companies have boomed under the state program, expressed disappointment about the cancellation of the program but were divided about the impact of ending the leasing program.

"This was one of the most successful programs for deploying clean energy into residential housing, and now it's closed," said Ron French, president for solar projects at Alteris Renewables in Wilton, one of New England's fastest-growing alternative energy companies. "This will definitely curtail a lot of growth in the industry in Connecticut and now we'll just have to do more projects out of state."

Carolyn Humphreys is a former solar systems designer who is now the community outreach coordinator for Sunlight Solar Energy of Milford, another large solar installer that grew quickly under the leasing program. Humphreys pointed out that a state rebate program that defrays between 15 percent and 20 percent of the cost of a system is still in place. Homeowners who install solar panels are also eligible for a federal tax credit worth about 30 percent of the cost. And, she said, because of worldwide demand, the cost of solar panels is dropping, so a typical system that once cost about $50,000 now costs $35,000.

"When you put those three things together, we're approaching the point where a system can be paid off in 12 years when you consider the savings from electrical bills," Humphreys said. "There are still plenty of homeowners out there who would rather not lose all that money to an electrical utility because the falling costs of a solar panel system are beginning to make more sense."


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