Local News
3:01 am
Tue May 20, 2014

No Panels? No Problem. New Solar Power Options for the Suburbs

A solar garden in Harvard, Mass.
Credit Anne Mostue / WGBH

Solar power is getting a new push - with more tax incentives, and renewed goals from the state and federal government to increase generation. But are homeowners finding it pays off? In this week’s focus series, WGBH's Anne Mostue reports on solar, along with a new option for people who don’t have quite enough sun.

The historic, white house in Melrose has been in Richard Mallon’s family for 50 years. It has a porch with tall, white columns and rocking chairs, and a large, friendly kitchen. So, when Richard and his wife, Rose, heard the broad, south-facing roof was a good candidate for solar panels, they wondered how the shiny, modern installation would look.

"I didn’t think he would even think about going for it because the house means a lot to him," Rose said.

Of concern: would solar panels change the character of their home? But the house was tall enough that the panels were barely visible from the street. Then the cost: the Mallons didn’t know much about installing or maintaining panels or calculating tax credits. So, they opted for a 20-year lease from a local solar company.

"Like anything it was always a tradeoff between convenience versus cost," Richard said. "And in this particular case and at this particular point in our lives, we just decided to go with the convenience of the lease."

The lease cost a one-time fee of $15,000. That may sound high, but so were their electricity bills.

"Our bills were very consistent, they averaged about $3,600 a year. $300 a month for the electric bill. Fairly high. And so, $3,600 a year that we used to pay. Our first year on solar our total bills were $575."

At those rates the Mallons think it’ll take fewer than five years for their panels to pay off, and then they’ll enjoy another decade of low electricity bills.

The Mallons turned out to be ideal candidates for solar. But for those who aren’t, there’s a new option. Steven Strong runs this so-called “solar garden” in the town of Harvard, 25 miles northwest of Boston.

"We’re in the middle of the Harvard Solar Garden which is a collective, community-owned solar project which is run like a cooperative where the subscribers are shareholders," Strong said.

It’s the first of its kind in the state. Down a gravel road, behind the local pizza place – it’s a fenced-in field of solar panels. Working with the local utility, the garden feeds electricity back onto the power grid, and shareholders receive credits on their utility bill. They can “own” up to 15 kilowatts – enough to power an entire home. But the credit depends on Mother Nature. Like a CSA, or community supported agriculture.

"We can’t guarantee because of the varying weather patterns. It’s sort of like a CSA for a community garden. You get what the vegetables grow and what’s produced during the season," Strong said.

That “season” starts in the next two weeks, when the solar garden goes online. So far 60 people have subscribed, from all over Central and Western Mass. They’re hoping for a bountiful, sunny harvest to lower their electricity bill.

Watch the story on Greater Boston: