Advocates say solar power viable in New England

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(Host) Fuel prices have gotten so high that many homeowners and businesses have begun to look for energy alternatives, such as solar power.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, advocates say solar is viable in northern New England even though the region gets less sunlight than just about any place else in the country.

(Sneyd) Jim Grundy knows solar power pretty well. He generates electricity from the sun for his own home. And he’s also owner of Elemental Energy in East Montpelier, which designs and installs solar systems.

He says a reliable photovoltaic system can be designed for just about any site in the region – as long as it gets six or seven hours a day of unobstructed sunlight.

(Grundy) “So, if that solar window is open on the location where the solar electric panels or collectors are located, we can make that work.”

(Sneyd) But the question for homeowners and businesses is whether it makes sense to go solar.

(Grundy) “That’s really the $1 million question. It is a financial investment in that you’re putting in some amount of capital upfront and then you’re seeing a return in the form of electrical kilowatt value over time.”

(Sneyd) But time is the key because it may take a while before you can recoup the cost of putting up solar panels through savings on your power bill.

Systems aren’t cheap. It can cost $7,000 to build a system capable of producing a thousand kilowatt-hours a year. And that’s less than the average home uses.

So industry leaders advise potential customers to gaze into their personal crystal balls. Figure out your own priorities, Grundy says.

(Grundy) “If energy pricing goes up like what we’ve seen with oil recently, then it’s definitely a good investment. If energy prices somehow stay stable or even go down, then maybe it’s going to be a long time before it pays off.”

(Sneyd) Nick Emlen of Calais made that calculation about a year ago.

He says his family views their solar system as an insurance policy against disruptions or price spikes in the traditional electrical grid.

And he says it also fits their environmental ethic.

(Emlen) “We wanted to reduce our net carbon output. And it just appealed to us. We thought of it as an investment in our community’s power generation infrastructure to jump and be creating some solar power.”

(Sneyd) Emlen’s system generates more power than he needs in the summer, so he’s able to sell the excess back to his local utility.

But during the long, dark days of winter, he draws on the traditional grid because his system can’t keep up with the demand.

Experts say that’s typical for solar energy in the Northeast.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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