Solarize Massachusetts spreads to 17 towns

State handles marketing for installers

Massachusetts is rolling out a bulk-purchasing solar program to more than a dozen communities this summer that will allow homeowners to save as much as 30 percent on installations.

Patterned after a pilot program last year in four communities, the Solarize Massachusetts program run by the state’s Clean Energy Center attempts to cut marketing costs by rounding up a group of potential customers for a single solar installer. The higher the number of participants, the lower the cost to each one.

Piloted in Hatfield, Harvard, Winchester, and Scituate last year, this year’s program will include 17 communities across the state, including Acton, Arlington, Boston, Lenox, Hopkinton, Melrose, Mendon, Millbury, Montague, Newburyport, Palmer, Pittsfield, Shirley, Sutton, Wayland, Sudbury, and Lincoln.

The city of Boston has chosen SolarCity, a California-based solar-power company with locations in several states, including Massachusetts, as its installer. The city of Boston and the MassCEC held an informational meeting earlier this month in Jamaica Plain, which drew roughly 35 people. The meeting was one of several scheduled to take place in Boston throughout the summer.

Elizabeth Kennedy, program director for renewable energy generation at the MassCEC and one of the organizers of the meeting, explained the concept to attendees as a way to promote the adoption of solar power by making it easier – and less expensive – for people to buy. “What we’re really targeting as an agency is, ‘how can we reduce some of these soft costs?’” for solar companies, said Kennedy.

The soft costs include marketing and customer acquisition, which is done instead by the MassCEC and participating communities through information sessions such as the one in Jamaica Plain. The result is a savings of between 13 and 22 percent off of the average cost of a solar installation last year.

While a homeowner’s final pricing package depends on roof type, rebates, and other factors, the MassCEC says a Boston customer who installs a five-kilowatt system on his or her roof can expect to pay around $20,000 to $23,000 for a solar installation, as opposed to roughly $27,000 outside of the program. MassCEC officials said over 35 Boston residents have expressed an interest in the program so far. An option to lease the system from the installer is also available.

Lowie Hayes, a Mission Hill resident and member of the Boston Climate Action Network, said event organizers asked her to come to the informational meeting to help with promotion, but said she’s interested in getting solar panels installed on her roof. “People are seriously interested,” said Hayes of the attendees. “But there’s still a steep learning curve.”

MassCEC officials said the Solarize Mass pilot last year saved residents between 8 and 33 percent off of the statewide average cost of going solar, and they expect this year’s savings to be similar. “I think a couple of things have happened – we’ve continued to see price compression on the cost of solar. We continue to see prices fall,” said Eric Macaux, the MassCEC’s senior director for strategy and legal affairs. In addition, Macaux said, the “solar integrators,” or providers, have gotten more acclimated with the concept and were smarter about pricing for this round.

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In Pittsfield, another city participating in conjunction with nearby Lenox, Parks and Open Space Manager Jim McGrath said there have been a lot of companies utilizing large-scale solar installations, but the city hopes to encourage more small business and residential solar installations. “Pittsfield really has become known for renewable energy generation on the solar side so what we were trying to do is capitalize on that and really bring it down to the small scale residential user,” said McGrath.

The solar provider for Pittsfield and Lenox is Maryland-based Astrum Solar, and prices will range from $4.15 to $3.70 per watt, or roughly a 20 to 30 percent discount. Nate Joyner, permit coordinator for the Pittsfield Community Development Office, said in an email that he expects the two communities will reach the threshold for the 30 percent discount. 

The program will run through September 30th. Residents have until that time to sign a contract with their community’s solar integrator.