July 15, 2008

Use of Solar Panels Heats Up in Wilton, Conn.

By Richard Lee, The Stamford Advocate, Conn.

Jul. 14--Michael Lindberg keeps a close eye on the world's energy supply.

As chairman of Wilton's Energy Commission, he educates townspeople, business operators and elected officials about how to react to skyrocketing fuel costs.

As a result, the school system and town government have contracted for about 40 percent of their electrical energy to be provided through renewable or sustainable sources.

Now, Lindberg has embraced his own advice. He installed a photovoltaic solar array on the roof of his Thunder Lake Road home.

Lindberg declined to disclose how much he spent on the project, which will reduce his monthly electric costs significantly.

He estimates the 7.5-kilowatt system will supply 75 percent of his family's annual electrical requirements at a savings of $125 per month, or about $100,000 over the 25-year life span of the panels.

"We will typically sell excess power to CL&P during the day and buy it back during the night and on cloudy days," Lindberg said. "The installation has a positive environmental benefit equivalent to planting approximately 900 trees or offsetting approximately 200,000 miles of driving in a typical automobile."

Lindberg's house, with its roof angle and southern exposure, is ideal for the project, installed by Solar Works, owned by Wilton resident Ron French.

"A lot of people think it's expensive, but it's a misnomer. The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, administered by Connecticut Innovations, will support half of the installation. There's a federal investment tax credit of $2,000, and you're adding a considerable amount of value to your home," said French, whose crew installed the array in June.

The net cost of a "moderate" PV array that produces 4 to 5 kilowatts, smaller than Lindberg's, is $20,000 to $25,000, after the government assistance, said Mark Pizzi, partner with architect John Rountree in Westport Solar Consultants.

"The rebate is passed through the solar installation firm. The customer doesn't have to wait or apply for the rebate," Pizzi said.

In the past three months he and Rountree have received numerous calls from homeowners.

Rountree's job is to ensure the installation fits the look of the house.

"We design a signature that is most compatible with the structure. Most of what we're doing is retrofitting. There's still a thought that panels are ugly," said Rountree, who works with installers.

Rountree and Pizzi make it clear to callers that photovoltaic installations do not affect home heating oil use, but the elevated price of oil works its way through the cost structure to electricity utilities.

But the oil and natural gas crunch will affect homeowners' electric bills, Rountree said.

"Rate hikes are being proposed by CL&P because fuel costs are going up," he said.

In fact, electric bills in the area from Connecticut Light & Power jumped 4.7 percent July 1, adding to a 2 percent rate increase in January. And rates will jump another 1 percent next year.

While most solar installations in the region are photovoltaic, some homeowners opt for solar thermal or hot water installations, which offset use of home heating oil or natural gas, said Jared Haines, president of Mercury Solar Systems in Greenwich and New Rochelle, N.Y.

As home heating oil prices have skyrocketed, the pay-back period for solar thermal installations has dropped from 10 to five years, he said.

"This is taking off. Ninety percent of our business in photovoltaic," Haines said. "From last year to this year, we've seen a 300 percent increase in interest. Last year, it was two or three phone calls a day. Now it's six to eight. We had six (employees) last year. Now we have 22."

Homeowners realize energy expenses will continue to climb, and they want to protect themselves, said French, who is awaiting action in Congress to renew funding for sustainable energy.

"People are looking to do anything to save money. Connecticut has some of the highest electric rates in the country," he said. "People also are aware that climate change is real, and they want to do something."

French estimates that, by the end of the year, his company will see a 150 percent increase in business over last year.

"There's definitely an increase in people calling," said Paul Israel, president of Sunlight Solar, a Milford installer. "We're increasing 25 percent a year. We started with one (installer) when we started in Connecticut four years ago. We're up to 23. We're in a very labor-intensive industry."

Connecticut Innovations, through its Clean Energy Fund, has assisted in funding 53 photovoltaic installations in lower Fairfield County this year as of May 31, including three in Darien, 10 in Greenwich, seven in New Canaan, two in Norwalk, nine in Stamford, 17 in Westport and five in Wilton.

More than $1.1 million in incentive funding has been awarded for the projects.

The quasi-governmental agency has assisted in funding 399 installations since the program started about 3 1/2 years ago, said Emily Smith, a Connecticut Innovations spokeswoman.

"The growth of our program is tremendous. Requests have increased dramatically year over year," she said. "You're hedging against the future."


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