No. Smithfield will be first in the state to pilot solar program

No. Smithfield will be first in the state to pilot solar program

NORTH SMITHFIELD - North Smithfield will soon be first in the state to pilot a program aimed at increasing the number of rooftop solar devices on residential homes and small businesses.

The program, dubbed Solarize RI, is offered through a joint effort of the state Office of Energy Resources, Commerce RI and SmartPower, and is supposed to drive down the cost of installation of small-scale solar systems through group purchasing.

The town will put out an RFP in September and select a single installer through a competitive bidding process by the end of the month, with the help from officials in the green-energy focused organizations.

For residents, the initiative will officially launch in October, with sign-ups to run through December.

"It has the overall purpose of reducing the cost of solar projects," said Matthew Ray, the Rhode Island state director at SmartPower. "Quite often people want to get involved in solar and have it on their rooftop, but they don't know how to do it."

North Smithfield is one of three communities chosen to pilot the program and will launch the initiative first, followed by Little Compton and Tiverton next spring. Ninety-one municipalities in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut previously signed on for similar "Solarize" programs, resulting in installation in up to 10 percent of homes.

According to Ray, the latest round of municipal contracts in Massachusetts involved 15 communities and resulted in more than 900 installations. In Connecticut, Ray said, the initiative has led to the creation of some 8 megawatts of power.

"We're going to partner with them to get this off the ground and to encourage people to participate," explained Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton.

Involvement costs nothing for the town and is expected to reduce costs by up to 20 percent for homeowners, although the final amount savings will ultimately be determined by how well the program is embraced by residents.

The cost of solar installation, Ray explained, is often driven by "soft costs" associated with rooftop installation- fees tacked on beyond the hardware itself. By taking over advertising and encouraging use of a single installer, officials hope they will reduce the price significantly with a lower group purchasing price.

"This program was designed to drive those soft costs down," Ray said.

The average system, Ray said, costs between $12,000 and $15,000 and comes with a seven year return on investment.

"A lot of people are scared that it's very expensive," Ray said. "It's dropped dramatically over the past few years."

The Renewable Energy Fund offers grants for about a third of that cost, covering up to $10,000. Owners of solar systems are also eligible for a federal tax credit that covers up to an additional 30 percent.

"It makes it more affordable for people of all income levels," said Sue AnderBois, energy planning and policy manager at the Office of Energy Resources.

The equipment is expected to last around 25 years.

The organizations will educate residents through "community-driven outreach" and will advertise at all major town events, such as Pumpkinfest.

"We find that neighbors are really incentivized to speak to other neighbors," said Ray.

Word will be spread, Ray explained, at house parties and neighborhood gatherings.

It's a program uniquely suited to North Smithfield, where green projects like the Rhode Island Energy Challenge have been a great success.

"You've really proven to be a leader in sustainability practices and energy efficiency," said Ray. "We think that your commitment could really be a good leader for the rest of the state."

The project was presented to the Town Council last week, and Councilor Thomas McGee expressed concern that North Smithfield should not be responsible for the work of the installers.

"We make it very clear that we are the first line of contact," said Ray, adding that, "every installer is vetted by the state."

McGee also said he was disappointed that the project was not aimed at encouraging solar heating.

"What we really need in New England is heating more than electric," he said. "I would work on doing both before you get my vote."

AnderBois said they will give some preference to installers who are capable of working with both electric and heating systems, if any apply.

A resolution supporting the project was confirmed by a vote of 4-1, with McGee voting in the minority.

"The town of North Smithfield commits to promote in participate in the Solarize RI effort known as Solarize North Smithfield with the goal of becoming a leader in residential and small commercial solar electric installations in the state of Rhode Island," the resolution states.

The program will have a time limit, aimed at encouraging potential customers not to delay installations.

"People are much more likely to act when they see a deadline approaching," said AnderBois.

"We looking to really grow the green market economy here in the state," AnderBois added. "We're really excited for North Smithfield to be one of the first communities to explode with solar."