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Sunny Side Up

As the price plummets, solar energy is getting harder to ignore



Illustrations by Linda Helton

 “It’s just common sense,” says Lloyd Trufelman, a New York resident and proud owner of a rooftop solar-photovoltaic system. “It’s no hassle, you save money, and you make a tremendous impact on the environment. I honestly don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do it.”

This simple logic is getting harder and harder to dispute. And it’s a sentiment that can be heard from an increasing number of local residents, as solar panels, gleaming from residential rooftops, become the most visible sign of a burgeoning alternative-energy movement in our area.

Between 2013 and 2014, Connecticut saw the number of residential solar installations double, which prompted Governor Malloy to expand the state’s residential solar investment program goals by an order of magnitude, from 30 megawatts a year, to 300 megawatts a year by 2022. And New York installed more solar capacity in 2014 than it did in the three previous years combined, a total of 174 megawatts. 

Though solar—and all renewable energy sources—still makes up a small fraction of the total amount of energy consumed in this country, it is starting to account for an increasing percentage of the new capacity coming online. In fact, 70 percent of all new generating capacity in the first half of 2015 came from renewable sources, much of it solar. 

For a long time, solar energy has been a tough sell in this part of the world. In sun-soaked California—which installed more solar in 2014 than the entire country did in the previous four decades—it’s a no-brainer. But the Northeast is not exactly known for its 

abundant sun. So solar panels have been viewed by many as an expensive hobby for environmental enthusiasts. 

Every market has its breaking point, however. And the twin trends of rising traditional energy costs and more affordable alternatives are spurring a new wave of solar adoption in this area. Only Alaska and Hawaii have higher electricity costs than do Connecticut and Westchester. Meanwhile, in the last ten years, the cost of producing solar energy has fallen from $8 a watt to less the $3 a watt, a downward trend that shows no sign of abating. 

“The price of all alternative energy has come down significantly in the last five years,” says Mark Thielking, executive director of Energize NY and director of energy resources for the town of Bedford. “It’s like the Industrial Revolution all over again. The scale and efficiency of production is driving the cost declines, and the demand is driving the scale. And as more and more people adopt alternative energy, we’re starting to see the social norms change.”

In addition, the way solar systems are marketed and sold to homeowners has evolved and adapted. Solar vendors now handle every aspect of a solar installation, from getting municipal approvals, to processing the federal and state incentives. And they offer a variety of financing options, including low- or no-interest credit, leasing, and power-purchase agreements, in which homeowners become electricity providers, selling energy to a distributor. 

Trufelman chose to lease his solar system, because he was able to install it with no upfront costs and still pay less for electricity on a monthly basis. Kishore and Malavika Ranande, who are building a new home in Ridgefield, chose to purchase their panels outright. 

“I looked at both methods, and because the warranty on these panels is now 25 years at minimum, buying seemed better than leasing,” says Kishore, who considered going solar five years ago, but decided against it because the costs were too high. “I did a tremendous amount of research into this purchase, and the bottom line is that it would be foolish for us not to take advantage of solar. We have a house with a perfect southwest-facing roof. And I’ve seen 20 years of electricity bills go up. So this is just common sense.”

Solar providers have also simplified the initial assessment of the solar potential of a home. Using Google Maps to measure the size and orientation of your rooftop, many vendors can now estimate energy production without making an onsite visit. And vendors camped out at home-improvement retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot are targeting the do-it-yourselfers as they walk through the doors.

 “The bottom line is that we’re getting better at solar,” says Tom Wemyss, a salesperson at PurePoint Energy, a solar-panel provider based in Norwalk. “The manufacturers are getting better. The providers are getting better. And the utilities are getting better. And homeowners? They just want to save money.” 

The early adopters of solar panels were largely driven by environmental concerns. But the industry has always known that residential solar would reach a tipping point when the economics were too compelling to ignore. And for Connecticut and New York, that time is now. 

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