Can 'solar as service' work in Rhode Island?

A bright idea
By MARION DAVIS  |  April 29, 2009

As Alteris Renewables sees it, this is the game-changer.

Lots of people, they say, would happily put solar panels on their homes if they could afford them — but they're not quite "green" enough to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a system that, even with rebates and tax credits, might not pay for itself even in a decade.

But for $1000, with the installation and maintenance taken care of, minimal paperwork, and a roughly 20-percent annual return from immediately lower electric bills . . . that's doable.

Last week, Alteris began offering that package to Massachusetts homeowners in partnership with San Francisco-based SunRun Inc., a pioneer in a new approach to solar energy: "solar as a service." Bill Kanzer, marketing director for Alteris, likens it to going from a big satellite dish in your backyard to cable TV.

Business owners have been doing it for years with "power purchase agreements," he notes, in which a third party owns the equipment and sells them the solar power — and also reaps the benefit of any state incentives. In Connecticut, homeowners can now lease solar systems through a state program.

Within years, Kanzer predicts, everyone will be able to do this. But SunRun, which has offered solar power in California and Arizona since 2007, picked Massachusetts as its first East Coast market for three key reasons, he says: strong and stable state incentives, relatively high electricity rates, and progressive consumers.

Rhode Island, on the other hand, is seen as such a weak market for solar power that even vendors with local ties do virtually no business here. Bob Chew, founder of Bristol-based SolarWrights Inc., which merged with a Vermont firm to form Alteris last fall, now heads up the company's wind division.

Why are we so far behind?

For starters, advocates say, Rhode Island has put far less money into renewables than its neighboring states. But since 2006, Governor Donald L. Carcieri's administration has also steered the state away from solar energy, which it viewed as not cost-effective, and focused resources on wind power and other larger-scale options.

Karina Lutz, deputy director of People's Power & Light, a local nonprofit energy consumers' alliance, says the policy choice wasn't irrational: Rhode Island's Renewable Energy Fund comes from a levy on electricity use and is meant to be self-sustaining, and wind turbines can generate a lot of clean power very fast.

"Solar installations tend to be much smaller," she says. Advocates were "very, very excited" when the total solar power being generated in the three states reached 5 megawatts, "but two wind turbines is 5 megawatts. The one that went up in Portsmouth — that's 3 megawatts right there."

Yet big turbines, she adds, can also generate big opposition, and permitting issues can delay them for years, whereas solar panels can go up quickly, in large numbers, with minimal problems.

"So if you want local energy which reduces a whole lot of other environmental impacts, you need to think of solar as part of the mix," Lutz says. And if you want solar to be economically viable, she adds, you need to make Rhode Island a good market for it again.

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