Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 23, 2013

Solar power's shining moment

Tax incentives, savings add up to industry's bright future

By Bill Kirk

---- — Chad Stern doesn’t look like a revolutionary.

He doesn’t wear a tricornered hat or carry around a muzzle-loader. He’s got a wife and two kids and he goes to work every day.

But he is part of a revolution — a shift in Massachusetts toward the use of solar energy to generate electricity to power everything from home furnaces and air conditioners to lightbulbs and iPads.

Stern recently installed a grid of solar panels on the roof of his 4 Highland Ave. home that he shares with his wife, Caralyn, along with their two children, 4-year-old Austin and 2-year-old Calvin.

They are taking advantage of a suite of tax and other incentives from the federal and state governments that make the $40,000 project financially feasible. Of course, it helps that he works for a solar installation company, too.

The 39-year-old Stern, a former hockey player at Phillips Academy and later the school’s water polo coach, is general manager of a Hawaii-based company called RevoluSun that recently opened its first franchise in the lower-48 in Burlington.

Since starting up in September, the company already has 50 customers in the pipeline and Stern expects more in the sales cycle as the summer heats up.

“Timing and incentives have never been better for Massachusetts homeowners to go solar,” Stern said, adding, “When the sun starts to shine, people say, ‘Let’s talk.’”

A 1992 graduate of Phillips, Stern then headed off to the University of Vermont. He is now working on his master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability from Harvard University.

“We are in the educational phase in Massachusetts,” he said. “Solar is accepted in Hawaii; here, it’s still kind of new.”

Nonetheless, in the last few years, due to a combination of factors, the number of people with solar panels on their roofs has skyrocketed.

Stern noted that in 2010, there were 780 solar panel installations in the state. In 2011, the number rose to 1,700. Last year, there were a whopping 2,600 installations, he said.

“It quadrupled in three years,” he said.

Stern said the reason is a set of incentives that make the pricey panels less painful to the pocketbook.

The biggest incentive now for homeowners is what are called SRECs, or Solar Renewable Energy Credits, which require utilities to buy electricity from homeowners who create more power than they use.

“The homeowner receives a check from the utility company,” he said.

A system like his, generating 7.8 kilowatts, would get 11 SRECs a year. At $250 per SREC, he said, the financial gain can be considerable.

Meanwhile, the federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit while the state has a rebate program worth up to $1,000 a year.

Stern said his $39,000 system cost him just $22,000. With the savings on his electricity bill and the SREC income, he expects he should be able to pay off his system in seven or eight years.

“I pay for it what I would have paid on my electric bill,” he said, explaining that when the sun is shining, his electric meter spins backward as it feeds electricity back into the grid.

Stern said the system is very simple and easy to install, requiring just a building permit from the town to put in and then little to no maintenance. Meanwhile, he said, solar panels increase the value of a home.

What’s even better is that the utility now pays full credit for the electricity it buys, he said. In the past, utilities weren’t required to pay the full amount.

“It’s what makes it work in this state,” he said. “We are the sixth largest state in the country when it comes to generating solar power.”