Let the sun shine in: Fairfielders save with solar

The Noecker family of Fairfield stands in front of their "solarized" house. (Shawn O'Sullivan photo)

The Noecker family of Fairfield stands in front of their “solarized” house. (Shawn O’Sullivan photo)

Last week’s announcement of a United Illuminating rate increase could mean an extra $32 added to the average monthly household bill. But Fairfielders who installed solar panels through a town-sponsored program may avoid some of the steep sticker shock predicted for area electricity users this winter.

More than 70 Fairfield households took advantage of the Solarize Fairfield program, which offered incentives for early adoption of solar in 2013 and 2014. The program’s participants have reported a high rate of energy savings.

While Solarize Fairfield has ended, a different program, Fairfield Energy Challenge — sponsored by Fairfield’s Clean Energy Task Force (CETF), United Illuminating, and the CT Green Bank — is currently offering similar discounts and incentives.

Savings results

According to Bob Wall, Associate Director of Outreach for the CT Green Bank, Solarize Fairfield was a success. Said Wall, who is also a member of Fairfield’s Clean Energy Task Force (CETF), “Independent analysis has shown that the systems are producing 105% of what was originally projected. Therefore the projections were conservative, and the customers who did adopt solar are receiving a slightly better value than they realized when they signed their name on the dotted line.”

Meg Murray and Ivan Maisel bought through Solarize in April 2013, and had panels fitted to both their house and garage.
“We installed central air in 2005,” said Murray. “Prior to getting solar, our bills in the summer were usually very high.” Murray said their  summer bills this year, by contrast, were low.

“Our August 2014 bill was $16.50. Our bill in September was $55. We are seeing the savings. We get the bills and are thrilled. One month we even had a zero balance.”

Murray said the environmental benefits of their switch are gratifiying as well. “We can see that we are doing something good for the environment by taking advantage of renewable resources, and that feels really good. It may take seven years for it to pay for itself, but every month we feel like we are making an investment in the future.”

Making the move to solar isn’t cheap, with an average purchase price — without any special discounts — of $24,000, according to Astrum Solar, the town’s chosen vendor for Solarize Fairfield and the Fairfield Energy Challenge. But Astrum says state and federal incentives knock 50% off that price tag.

Like others who bought through the town program, Dan Delventhal also found its combination of lower energy costs and earth-friendly practices appealing. After the first Solarize workshop was held, Delventhal went out and did some comparison shopping. He found Astrum Solar, combined with the incentives, to be the best solution, and had panels installed for about $10,000. The purchase price is based on the system’s wattage.

“For a person like me who wants to change to carbon-neutral, environmentally sound practices in the first place, this program was a dream come true, and Astrum did a great job.”

Dr. Robert Noecker installed this past spring through the Solarize program. “I got a 12,000 kilowatt system, as big as I could make it,” he said. The Noecker’s system cost approximately $22,000, after a state rebate and tax credits totaling around $13,000.
“We are already looking at a five-and-a-half year payoff,” said Noecker.

 Noecker started to think about solar after Sandy. “The hurricane was so miserable. It was a wake-up call how beholden we were to the electric company. We were 10 days without power. Then I actually noticed solar panels on a neighbor’s garage and said. ‘Aha!’”

“I am one of those maniac fathers who goes around switching off lights,” continued Noecker. “I’m kind of an energy nerd. I’ve changed all my lightbulbs to LEDs.” Noecker said he saw positive results of the switch during the summer.

“Last summer in July our electricity bill was about $350. This year it was about $17. The best thing about it is that the hottest, longest days of the years are when the system is at its best.”

Solar systems are less effective during winter, when clouds block the sunlight needed for their operation. But Jill Appel, Astrum’s northeast director of community programs, said United Illuminating allows solar customers to bank credits produced in the summer to offset their winter bills.

Wall expects that the cooler temperatures and recent rate hikes will have people exploring solar energy this season. “Solar is very economical,” he noted. “Prices have come down dramatically. When we started the Solarize campaign in Fairfield, the average [installation] cost for solar was $5.00 [per watt], with Solarize costing $3.60. Now it’s down in the low fours, and for the Energy Challenge, Astrum is offering $3.40 per watt.”

Fairfield Energy Challenge

Astrum Solar consultant Barbara Welch gave a recent workshop in Fairfield for the Energy Challenge, explaining that for interested homeowners, the first step is an on-site survey conducted by Astrum technicians, determining “what percentage of sun you get on different points on the roof.”

Welch explained that this information, plus a homeowner’s yearly United Illuminating usage rate, is included in Astrum’s price proposal, adding, “We design, install and service the system.”

Before qualifying for solar incentives through the Challenge, homeowners are required by the state to schedule a $99 energy audit, performed by one of two vendors involved in the program. To conduct the audit, the company’s technicians perform a blower door test, which brings outside air through the drafty leaky areas of the home. They then caulk or fill any leaks. Weather-stripping of doors and windows and door sweeps are included, as are low-flow shower heads and nine feet of insulation for basement pipes. Another blower test will then show the amount of air flow reduction.

The specialists also come equipped with 25 compact fluorescent and four light-emitting diode lightbulbs, which they will install for you.
“We end up doing about a $1,000 of work and you only pay the $99,” said Colin Babbage, head of Project Development at New England Smart Energy, one of the companies participating in the Energy Challenge.

In the second part of the audit, the technician evaluates the home’s insulation, appliances and heating and cooling systems to identify appropriate replacements or upgrades.

Financing

Appel said Astrum’s prices will remain on the table through early next year, and a federal tax credit for solar purchases applies to systems installed before Dec. 31, 2016.

During her workshop, Welch explained the options for paying for the solar installation. “You can own it, you can finance through the state of Connecticut, or lease.” Appel also said bridge loans in the amount of the tax credits are available.

Town projects

 The town of Fairfield receives credits for the home energy audits required of residents participating in the program. “Because New England Smart Energy has partnered with the Fairfield CETF, for every assessment we give back $25 to Fairfield for green or energy efficiency projects throughout the town,” explained Babbage.

“We get points toward things like the solar systems that we put on the middle schools,” said Scott Thompson, Chair of CETF. “We just did the electric car charging station at the Fairfield Woods Library. … When we accumulate enough points we can actually use them to support green projects for the town.”

Five students from Fairfield Warde High School are working as interns for the Energy Challenge to identify which homes in Fairfield are suitable for solar. The students will send out letters in January to try to get those homeowners interested. The Energy Challenge will be extended until sometime in 2015 in order to evaluate the results of the review.

“There are roughly 16,000 homes that we are reviewing,” says Thompson, “and we are talking about roughly 3,000 homes that will pass the initial screening for solar.”

Spreading the word

Early adopter Larry Kaley, also of CETF, and his wife Sharon are so positive about solar that they held an open house for people to come and see their system, which, with incentives, cost $5,500. Kaley estimates the system will have paid for itself within four years.

Scott Thompson has also held a couple of open house events. Thompson powers his Nissan Leaf EV through his solar system, and recently increased his panels in anticipation of getting another EV in the future. “Right now I’m making 120% of my electricity from solar,” he said.

To schedule a Home Energy Audit, call 1-877-WISE-USE or 1-877-947-3873, and mention the Fairfield code JBID140F to earn the town  credits for your audit. For a solar consultation for your home, go to http://go.astrumsolar.com/fairfield. To learn more about other energy saving programs go to http://www.energizect.com. To get other information about the Fairfield Energy Challenge from the Clean Energy Task Force, contact [email protected] or 203-912-0211.

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