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Alex Grant: To Solarize or Not to Solarize?

Longmeadow’s town government is now part of an effort to promote the sale and installation of residential solar panels. It is a curious partnership of local and state government and private industry. Is this an innovative approach to furthering a righteous cause, or is it a sales pitch for a dubious product? Either way, anyone who signs up is looking at a 20-year investment in a complicated financial product. Color me skeptical.

My family owns a house with a large roof facing the south. I received a letter from the town manager informing me that only 25 percent of homes are suited for rooftop solar panels and that my house is “particularly well-suited” for them. A program volunteer told me that our house is one of the best places in town to place a solar array. It was not exactly like being told that there is a vein of gold on your property, but it felt good to find out that our property might have some value we did not know about.

The letter explained that there is a program called Solarize Mass Springfield Longmeadow, which is part of Solarize Mass, a statewide program affiliated with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (Mass CEC) and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. The town of Longmeadow selected a company called SolarFlair to be the program vendor, which would actually install the panels. This is quite a cast of characters. The town of Longmeadow, the city of Springfield, a state economic development agency (Mass CEC), a department of state government, and a private company all are involved in selling this product.

The letter sounded a bit like a sales pitch, as it noted the “many benefits to going solar with Solarize” and none of the risks.

Among the benefits are federal and state tax credits and the possibility of SolarFlair donating money to a “deserving non-profit in the Springfield/Longmeadow area.”

One of these benefits, however, was carefully couched. According to the letter, the cost “can be generally up to 25 percent less expensive than average.” That’s a lot of hedging. The words “can be” and “generally” and “up to” all provide wiggle room if there is not a 25 percent cost saving. The 25 percent savings is in reference to the “average,” and the average is often in eye of the beholder. The Solarize website describes its program as “typically resulting in a 15-20 percent savings.”

At the conclusion, the letter said, “I urge you to contact SolarFlair Energy, Inc.” and it referenced a meeting with SolarFlair at the Longmeadow Adult Center. A subsequent meeting with SolarFlair at the Adult Center was advertised at the entrance to town. The sign said folks should go “to learn how to go green and save some green ($$).”

All of this seemed like something of a hard sell coming from a town government not typically involved in the marketing of energy products, or of any products at all. I call it a hard sell because the benefits are hyped and not very specific. Information about the product is paltry until you get a site assessment, where you are coming in direct contact with a representative of the company.

This is much like the selling of automobiles from a dealership. The bottom-line price is impossible to find and the dealer wants you to be in contact with a salesperson where an opaque process of negotiation takes place.

These factors ordinarily are red flags to me. I have also tried to research the wisdom of solar panels in the past, and the one firm conclusion I can draw is that this is a pretty complicated financial product. Solar panels are pitched as a 20-year investment with a big upfront cost. How big is particular to the house and the number of solar panels, but a recent Boston Globe article put the median price at $30,000 before the tax credits.

The investment also depends on how utilities will be regulated over the next 20 years. The boon of solar panels is not just that they supply electricity for your home, but that they can produce more than you need and feed back onto the electrical grid for a credit. This credit comes through a process called net-metering, which big utility companies basically hate. In 2018, state regulators in Massachusetts approved a new “demand charge” on Eversource consumers who plug their solar panels into the grid. Solar installers decried the move, calling it a step in the wrong direction in the state’s efforts to promote renewable energy.

If you feel confident that state regulation will favor residential solar panels for the next 20 years, this product may be for you. But there is another unknown. The projected cost savings of solar are in reference to the cost of energy generated by fossil fuels.

If you feel confident that the cost of electricity will rise steadily—a function of global energy markets–this product may be for you.

A final factor is the condition of your roof. People in the business say that if you are going to have to install a new roof in a few years, it is better to do that before putting on the solar panels. Then again, with a 20-year lifespan, it seems likely the solar panels will outlive your roof and will need to be removed and reinstalled at some point.

Despite my apparently great location, I am not ready to take the plunge on solar panels. Others, I imagine, will look at it differently, and perhaps they will save a lot on electricity over time. In any event, it seems like bad policy for a municipal government to be touting an investment that is far more complex than the marketing lets on. If solar panels turn out to be a bad bet for some, they may be looking to why their government led them astray or why it was involved at all.

– Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email letters to the editor at pressreleases@thelongmeadownews.com.