Solar company adopts community strategy
Workers for Peck Electric of South Burlington install solar panels on a home owned by Kristin and Robert Rutledge of Duxbury.
“Our mission is to get to every county in Vermont.”
By Bruce Edwards
A Waterbury company is casting a wide net in its approach to solar energy — installing home solar systems in large numbers, one county at a time.
SunCommon says its business model of signing up 100 or more homeowners at a time in a targeted area lowers the cost, making solar affordable on a large scale.
That large volume approach — believed to be the first of its kind in the state — allows a homeowner to lease a solar system so there is no down payment or upfront cost, said Don Conant, SunCommon’s solar community organizer.
“The concept is the company pays for the parts and the system and everything, and then from there we set the monthly payment equal to or less than what they were already paying for electricity,” Conant said.
Conant said the monthly lease payment is equal to or lower than the average residential power bill of $100 to $120 a month. He said the 20-year solar lease guarantees that a customer’s monthly bill will never go up. Because the system is tied into the power grid, a homeowner receives a credit for any excess power generated.
Homeowners can also purchase the system for $15,000 to $25,000 with a special solar loan from VSECU. Again, Conant said monthly loan payments are equal to or less than a homeowner’s current electric bill.
He said a solar system will provide 80 percent to 85 percent of a home’s energy usage. Any excess power generated is banked with the local utility at 20 cents per kilowatt hour; it is drawn on when the solar system doesn’t generate enough power in any given month.
(Vermont utilities are required to pay 20 cents per kilowatt hour, which includes a 6-cent premium, for small-scale renewable energy).
If the system can’t generate enough solar power to offset a home’s annual electric usage, Conant said SunCommon’s pricing reflects that shortfall.
Susan Klein, head of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce, had considered a solar system for her Fayston home as part of working toward a more self-sustaining lifestyle but the cost was beyond her family’s means.
Klein also said that much of the information she came across was just too complicated.
“So, we kind of just let it sit and figured it’s a moving target, and when the time is right we’ll know,” Klein said. “And along came SunCommon, who made it incredibly easy to understand and execute.”
Klein said the lease payments are about equal to her average monthly electric bill of $105 from the Washington Electric Cooperative.
Because the solar system has only been up and running since September, Klein said she won’t start realizing the full benefits until next year.
Conant said homeowners who purchase as opposed to lease can take advantage of federal and state incentives. The federal government offers a 30 percent solar tax credit that doesn’t expire until 2016.
Vermont offers up to a 15 percent rebate that expires at the end of the year. Clean-energy advocates are expected to press to have the rebate renewed after the new Legislature convenes in January.
If it’s a lease arrangement, the tax credits and rebates go to the company that owns the system.
AllEarth Renewables, the largest solar company in the state, doesn’t currently offer a leasing option for homeowners. But it has in the past and will offer it again early next year, according to company spokesman Andrew Savage. The Williston-based company does offer leasing for schools, municipalities and businesses.
Savage said in an email that lease payments are fixed for the life of the contract, regardless of energy prices,
He said for customers who lease, the average monthly payment was $96, equal to value of the solar energy produced.
For customers who purchase, Savage said the average AllEarth system runs $25,000. He said rebates and incentives bring the cost down to $15,000,
Unlike a fixed system, AllEarth’s Vermont-made systems track the sun, generating 40 percent to 45 percent more solar energy than a rooftop system, Savage said.
Since it opened for business this year, SunCommon (suncommon.com) has installed more than 300 solar systems on homes in Washington, Chittenden and Addison counties.
“Our mission is to get to every county in Vermont,” Conant said.
When it comes to solar, Green Mountain Power Corp. has a goal of making Rutland City the solar capital of New England. Conant, who applauded GMP’s efforts, said while SunCommon has no timetable it hopes to get to Rutland as soon as possible.
Steve Costello, GMP’s vice president of generation and energy innovation, said SunCommon’s efforts to achieve that goal will require broad participation.
“We don’t want to just build solar ourselves, but serve as a catalyst for others, big and small, who we expect will develop some large-scale projects, some mid-size projects and some small-scale projects,” Costello said in an email. “We will build some significant projects in the city, no doubt, but we want to help our customers do what’s best for them regardless of whether we build a given project or some other company does so.”
Duane Peterson and James Moore started SunCommon after running a successful solar pilot project at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Peterson and Moore incorporated VPIRG’s community-organizing approach in their business model.
SunCommon has 23 employees, including organizers, designers, guides, evaluators and a traffic manager.
Peck Electric of South Burlington, the company’s installation company, has 15 employees.
SunCommon uses both roof and fixed, ground-mounted solar arrays, depending on the home’s location. He said the lease covers installation and any maintenance and repair.
The company’s board of advisers includes Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s; Beth Sachs, co-founder of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. (Efficiency Vermont); Matthew Rubin, co-founder of Winooski One Hydro; Matt Ewing, a high-tech entrepreneur; and Cairn Cross, managing director of Fresh Tracks Capital.
Cross said what impressed him about the business is the way Peterson and Moore are rolling out solar on a large scale as opposed to a one-home-at-time approach.
“Unless you get the scale, you don’t really change the dynamics for the consumer in Vermont,” Cross said. “So that’s what was intriguing about the approach SunCommon took.”
Cross said he was also struck by the way the company went about promoting solar by first laying the groundwork through community meetings to educate consumers.
Cross added that neither he nor Fresh Tracks, his venture capital firm, have a financial stake in SunCommon.