Friday, November 2, 2012

Martha Grover: Solar is taking off in Melrose

As you drive around Melrose these days, you’ve probably noticed solar panels popping up on the roofs of several homes.
Martha Grover is the energy efficiency
manager for the city of Melrose.

If you’ve been thinking about going solar yourself, now is a great time to do it thanks to a perfect storm of decreasing equipment costs, state rebates, federal and state tax credits, the current value of solar renewable energy certificates, and discounted pricing available to Melrose property owners through a program called Solarize Massachusetts, that ends on Sept. 30. (T learn more, check out the links at the bottom of this column.)

Last week’s article in this paper, “Locals say yes to solar power,” provides a great explanation of the Solarize Mass program for Melrosians.

I thought I’d provide my own home as a case study for how one Melrose resident approached the idea of going solar. In order to get the best bang for our solar buck, we first made several changes over a few years to reduce our energy consumption for our family of five in our house built in 1880.

We’ve had two MassSave no-cost home energy assessments in which energy advisors visited our home to determine where we do and don’t have adequate insulation and where gaps cause us to lose heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. The energy adviser also provided us with free energy-efficient light bulbs for every fixture throughout the house, a programmable thermostat so we could easily adjust the heat when we’re not at home, and he conducted combustion safety tests of our heating system.

Thanks to the MassSave energy assessments, we were eligible for a variety of utility rebates and incentives for Energy Star appliances, insulation (75 percent of the cost up to $2,000), and had access to 0 percent Heat Loans offered at local Melrose banks for a variety of energy efficient home improvements.

To take full advantage of the weatherization insulation rebate we added blown-in cellulose in our exterior walls and fiberglass batts in the attic floor and basement ceiling in two phases over two years. As we gradually replaced our appliances, we purchased Energy Star products.

We also replaced our old oil furnace with a more energy-efficient natural gas system and installed an on-demand water heater in place of an 80-gallon electric tank that was oversized for our family. More recently, we’ve started replacing the CFL bulbs with new generation LEDs in our fixtures, which have come down in price quite a bit, offer better light quality, and they’ll last longer. Finally, we put up a clothesline this summer to reduce our electric dryer use.

After taking these steps to reduce our energy use, putting solar on our roof is the icing on the cake — it supplies about 60 percent of our electricity needs with energy from the sun. It makes financial sense for us, but that will vary for each homeowner depending on your energy use, the solar capacity on your roof and how you pay for the system.

Before we installed the four-kilowatt solar system on the south-facing shade-free side of our roof, our average monthly National Grid electric bill over the last three years was $121 for an average of 758 kilowatt-hours of monthly usage. We’ve managed to reduce our electric usage by about 10 percent from 2010.

Since we didn’t have the funds upfront to purchase a solar PV system, we decided on a lease arrangement where the installer designs, builds, maintains and owns the system and we make monthly payments over 20 years. In our case, we paid $500 upfront and our monthly payments are $50.

The electricity that our system produces goes on to the power grid. National Grid installed a new Net Meter that runs backwards when we aren’t home using energy during the day and the sun is out and it credits the solar production against our monthly usage.

The solar-produced electricity represents about 60 percent of our usage so, as a result, our monthly electric bills since February have averaged just $36. In this first year we are saving about $35 a month since we added solar but those savings will increase as the cost of electricity increases over 20 years.

By taking steps to be more energy efficient before going solar, the financial benefits from the solar system have a bigger impact. And even if your roof isn’t a good solar candidate, taking steps such having a no-cost home energy assessment is a cost-effective way to start saving energy and money.


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