Wanted: solar-minded homeowners

State offering grants for alternative energy


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While many may find it a struggle to keep electric bills down, Ed Craddock's utility meter occasionally runs backward.

Last June, Craddock installed 21 rooftop photovoltaic, or PV, panels, which convert energy from the sun into electricity. On some sunny days, Craddock said, when his computer and refrigerator are the only appliances being used, more energy is emitted from the solar panels than is used -- driving his utility meter backward -- and causing his electric company to credit him the money on his next bill.

Craddock's last electric bill for his 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom Newton house was only about $10 -- $6 of which was a customer-service charge.

With the help of the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, or Mass Energy, a nonprofit organization based in Boston, Craddock's home is one of seven Newton homes that have installed, in the past year, rooftop PV panels. Newton currently has the most homes among communities in the state with such renewable energy systems.

As a provision of the electric restructuring legislation, adopted in Massachusetts about six years ago, a small charge is added to every electric bill, which is appropriated toward the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund. Mass Energy received a $525,000 grant from the trust fund last October, which it allocates to homeowners, business owners, commercial, or city buildings, to install PV panels.

According to Craddock, the list price of the panels was around $16,000. Mass Energy subsidized about $6,000, lowering the price Craddock paid to install the panels to about $10,000.

In addition to covering almost half the base cost, Mass Energy offers a production incentive to encourage the continued use of the solar panels. A second meter is installed by Mass Energy in the home, which monitors how much energy is being produced by the solar panels, and Mass Energy then pays the customer accordingly, for three years, or up to $2,500 (for the typical 2-kilowatt system).

Offsetting the initial cost of the panels may take 10 or 20 years, Craddock estimated -- a factor he said discourages some people. But for him, environmental concerns factored prominently in his decision.

"I have two college-age children, and I want to leave something hopefully better than what is going on now," he said. "It's my investment in my kids' future."

To get the Mass Energy grants, residents or business owners must live in Boston, Brookline, Newton, or Somerville. The building must have a south-facing roof that is not shaded, the system must be installed by Mass Energy, and the homeowner must be able to cover costs up to $11,000.

According to Debra Perry, the solar energy program coordinator at Mass Energy, other organizations in the area with similar programs include MIT and Cape & Islands Self-Reliance Corp., which is based in the Falmouth village of Waquoit. Those groups also received grants from the Renewable Energy Trust Fund. MIT offers programs for residents in Cambridge, Arlington, Watertown, Lexington, and Waltham, and Cape & Islands Self-Reliance Corp. offers a program for residents on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.

Perry also said homeowners who install panels receive a 15 percent credit on their state income tax bills, with a cap of $1,000.

Although this trend is slowly catching on, not all of the available funds have been allocated, and Perry said she hopes raising awareness will spark more interest.

"It's a way for people to support clean energy, and it's a very real way to do that," Perry said. "You know exactly where your electricity is coming from."

Sponsored by the energy committee of the Green Decade Coalition, a Newton environmental group, solar home tours are offered in Newton every year to spread awareness. According to Eric Olson, vice chairman of the energy committee, 29 people participated in the third annual tour that was held last weekend.

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