Home solar vendor casts sunny eye on alternative energy future

SunCommon community organizer Becca White at her presentation in Proctorsville

Several companies have sprouted in southwestern Vermont to serve the growing interest

By JEFF EPSTEIN 

vtreporter@eagletimes.com 

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PROCTORSVILLE, Vt. — Sunday afternoon here was freezing and snowy with no direct sunlight, just a gloomy gray overcast. But about 10 people still came out to the Crow Bakery, stomping and sliding on the sidewalk, to ask questions about solar energy for the home.

As commercial solar energy has grown with large-scale installations, so too has the interest grown in home solar energy.

Several companies have sprouted in southwestern Vermont in recent years to service this interest, including Net Zero Renewable Resources, USA Solar Store, and SunCommon. These companies offer to help homeowners make decisions on their needs, and may sell them solar PV panels, inverters, batteries, or other equipment.

SunCommon sponsored the event at Crow Bakery, a local hangout. The company’s Becca White, a self-described community organizer, spent most of the hour answering questions over coffee from the audience of local residents. Some already had some equipment, and others were just getting stated.

Unlike fossil fuel systems, such as an oil furnace, a solar installation is a little more complex. Electric power starts with photovoltaic cells, often on the house roof, and the power has to be converted into usable current and stored in batteries. 

What SunCommon does, White said, is “show folks how they can use energy produced at their home.”

Homeowners get paid by their local utility for every kilowatt of solar power they return to the grid, she said. Using solar power instead of power from the grid lightens the load on the utility, especially on peak summer days, so the utilities encourage home solar.

One incentive has been a federal tax credit allowing homeowners to deduct 30 percent of the installation cost. However, that program, renewed in 2015, is scheduled to come to an end in 2020, White said.

SunCommon encourages interested homeowners to take advantage of that tax credit while it is still available.

The battery system that SunCommon uses, the Tesla Powerwall 2, uses lithium ion batteries with a 10-year guarantee. White carefully explains that these appliance-rated batteries are different from the batteries used in cellphone and other devices that have caught fire in past incidents.

Tesla is also one of the companies developing products such as “solar shingles” that are intended to be a more visually attractive alternative to traditional racks of photovoltaic (PV) panels. However, said White, the prototypes so far are no match for tough Vermont winters.

Green Mountain Power, the main utility in Vermont, started its own partnership with Tesla in 2017  to install and lease Powerwall 2 systems. This is a leasing program that proved so popular that “GMP was overwhelmed with its demand,” White said.

SunCommon is also straining to catch up. “We have a list of people who want the Tesla Powerwall, and we are installing them as quickly as we can.”

However, the battery system is only one part of the installation. In fact, White said, Tesla will not allow a Powerwall system in a home that does not have solar panels for collection. (This was an answer to a person asking if it might be possible to use the Powerwall with only a heat pump.)

Other homes may also have special cases, such as trying to go off-grid altogether. At USA Solar Store, “they tend to do specific jobs” that may not be right for SunCommon, White said. (In turn, USA Solar Store’s website mentions Net Zero Renewable Resources as one of its “preferred installers.”)

Once installed, however, the switchover is so smooth, even as a backup system, that the homeowner may not even know the neighborhood has a commercial power outage. One patron at the Sunday event said she knew of such as case, and wondered why the Tesla system did not have a red warning light or other notification so the homeowner could voluntarily reduce the power load on the battery.

Others have also asked for a notification alert, White said, and Tesla is working on that feature for a future upgrade.

That concern leads to another: will the technology upgrade so fast that a homeowner will be stuck with a white elephant after a few years? Unlikely, said White, but owners may still want to voluntarily upgrade their system every few years to take advantage of new technology.

Yes, said White, but it would be like taking your stove or refrigerator with you. Better to leave the installation in place and let it be a value-added feature to the house. 

And by the way, White noted, the added value of a solar power installation is market value only —it is not factored into the home’s value for property tax purposes.

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