Has Solar's Time Finally Come?

By Gary Mott

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Nov. 7, 2011

solar panels

Entrepreneurs are still trying to convince homeowners to go solar. This house in Northborough, Mass., is the only one in its neighborhood with solar panels. (Gary Mott/WGBH)


BOSTON — As storms rage and energy costs rise, economically viable solar energy for private homeowners is heating up in the U.S., with more companies seeking to enter what they admit is a niche market.
 
The amount of power a solar panel generates varies widely based on the amount of sunshine. Mass. looks fine on that front, said Elizabeth Kennedy, the solar program director for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
 
“Massachusetts has about the same amount of sunlight as Germany does, and Germany is the largest market for solar installations in the world. Part of why solar makes a lot of sense for some people in Massachusetts is because our electricity prices are very high, the fourth-highest in the United States,” she said.

Options and sellers were on display Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Solar Wind Expo in Marlborough, Mass., a trade show featuring vendors hawking a variety of energy-saving products for individuals and businesses, from wind turbines to low-maintenance lawn seed, as well as products to make cleanup projects more efficient.
 
Like many others at the Expo, James Butler was selling solar panels. His were among the least expensive, and made in China.
 
“We are trying to market them to the people who can’t afford the high cost of solar energy,” he said.
 
Many states are trying to help with affordability.
 
“Solar makes a lot of sense, particularly here in Mass., where the incentives are so great for homeowners,” said Vadim Poliko. He’s the president of Astrum Solar, an American company targeting homeowners in the state. “Whether you’re leasing panels or you’re buying the system, it means you get your payback very, very quickly."
 
Solar power may not be a cure-all in bad storms, however. About five miles away from the Solar Wind Expo lives Jason Cote, a Northborough homeowner with the only house in the Northgate Road neighborhood that has solar panels on the roof. The community suffered major power outages in the late-October nor’easter — and Cote lost power too.
 
“A lot of people think that we have the panels so we have infinite electricity when the sun is out, but if the grid goes out, the way it’s set up, our power goes out as well,” he explained.
 
The panels can complicate storm clean-up, he said: “If a lineman comes in to work on the lines out in the street, and assumes everything’s out, and we’re still producing power, pumping it back in, that could be a safety issue for that person.”
 
Cote leases 28 panels from a company called SunRun Home Solar, and purchases the power they generate. He lives in a 1500-square-foot Cape-style home.
 
“We pay somewhere around $32–36 a month to SunRun, and then our National Grid bill [is] somewhere [from] $60–75,” he said. Cost was not the family’s initial motivation for considering solar power: “We looked at it originally to try to offset our carbon footprint a little bit. And we thought at the time, if we could just break even with the panels for a couple of years, we’d do it. And when we investigated it, it was a lot better than breaking even,” Cote said.
 
If the motivation is to affect world climate, panel use on a massive scale is required, said retired geologist and climate scientist Thomas Crowley — and he was skeptical.
 
“It’s going to be very hard to penetrate into a broader market based on the fact that you have to have these incentives and most people cannot afford to plop down the money. It’s not as if I’m opposed to it, but I just think that it’s certainly not going to be a salvation for any global warming problem. It’s not going to [have] deep-market penetration,” Crowley said.
 
The spread of the technology to the average American homeowner is a hurdle that the solar industry is trying to overcome. Astrum Solar’s Vadim Polikov said, “I think solar is still new for a lot of people, and the country is still waking up to the idea and the promise of solar. A lot of people think it’s too good to be true, and then they do their research and realize, ‘Actually, this is true.’”
 
But what is also true is that the battle for the hearts and minds of the consumer relating to alternative energy, around the country and in Mass., has only just begun.

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