In my last column I talked about all the reasons the Pilgrim Pipeline proposal is so problematic, but I didn’t offer an answer to a question it begged — what are we to do to keep the lights on if we reject fossil fuels to generate electricity? The answer, building solar farms and installing solar panels, isn’t news to most people. But solar has been slow to get up and running so far and that isn’t entirely because of the intense and well-financed opposition from the fossil fuels industry.
Solar technology itself is relatively new. Like all new technologies, it started out expensive. But that’s changed; the cost of solar equipment has dropped (as well as improved) dramatically in the last few years, and with federal and New York state tax incentives (30 percent and 25 percent respectively) plus a 40 cents per installed watt New York State Energy Research and Development Agency grant (double that for those who qualify as low-income), solar installation has officially become affordable.
Another aspect of novelty, though, is the confusion consumers face in the solar marketplace. There are so many contractors and installers getting into the game and very few of them with the decades-long reputations for quality and reliability one finds in the commercial roofing companies dallas, for example. Solar just hasn’t been around long enough. We consumers have had to do a lot of research to sort through the crowd. It’s exciting to see the entrepreneurial, job-creating energy, but how do we choose?
Help is on the way in the form of a NYSERDA-sponsored initiative that awarded a grant to Sustainable Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountainkeeper to help communities initiate “Solarize” campaigns in the Hudson Valley and Catskills in 2015-17. Last year, three Ulster County municipalities conducted Solarize campaigns: Kingston, Rosendale, and our Catskills neighbor Woodstock. And this spring, Saugerties launches its own campaign, along with Northern Dutchess and Nyack. Lead agency for the Solarize Saugerties campaign is the Conservation Advisory Committee and the campaign is supported by Saugerties Town Board which, not coincidentally, has a community cogeneration solar project to supply electricity to public buildings under consideration.
A Solarize campaign makes going solar easier and more affordable than doing it on your own, first by solving the problem of which contractor to choose. Following extensive interviews, the Solarize Saugerties team has selected installers who were already thoroughly vetted and pre-qualified by Solarize Hudson Valley. Second, these installers further sweeten the financial incentives by offering a discount off their price for materials and installation to those who register through Solarize Saugerties.
From March through June, Solarize Saugerties will offer a series of workshops where people can get answers from community volunteers as well as directly from installers. Both team members and installers will be present to help people decide whether purchase or lease would work better for them and arrange for financing options. The installer will also do all the permit and other paperwork needed for installation, further simplifying the process. Workshop participants will have the option to register for a free, no-obligation, on-site assessment of their residence or business for suitability for solar panel (rooftop or ground) installation. Registration can also be completed online. Other events will include visits to Saugerties homes and businesses that have already put up panels and presentations in Saugerties schools.
The Solarize Saugerties volunteer team interviewed installers who had been rigorously vetted and pre-qualified and chose one commercial (Lighthouse Solar) and two residential (New York State Solar Farm and Direct Energy Solar) contractors as those who offer the widest range of equipment, financial arrangements and prices and discounts to home and business owners. Equipment ranges from basic to high-efficiency and includes roof and ground mounts as well as various options on converters. Financial options include purchase, lease, and power purchase agreement. Low-interest loans are available as well as the Affordable New York program for low and middle-income residents.
The local Solarize team
The volunteer team of your Saugerties friends and neighbors putting this campaign together represent the best of Saugerties. They are the reason that you can feel confident that Solarize Saugerties will serve your interests.
Most solar-savvy by virtue of background and experience is Bob Hlavaty, with over 20 years’ experience as a project engineer, project manager and analyst working on developing, permitting, designing, constructing and operating renewable energy and independent power projects. He is currently the alternative member for Saugerties to the Ulster County Planning Board and works closely with Vernon Benjamin on the proposal for the Town of Saugerties solar farm project mentioned above.
A very close second in energy expertise, Carole Furman is Building Performance Institute certified and works at Community Action as the energy auditor for EmPower New York. She worked for many years previously as a residential contractor, specializing in energy efficiency and solar options, and built a solar-powered home for a resident of the Cantine’s Island Co-Housing Community. She serves on the Saugerties library building committee and the Town of Saugerties planning board.
Rivaling Bob and Carole in depth of knowledge by virtue of interviewing many residents and business owners who have already installed solar is Skip Arthur, a 45-year resident of Saugerties and the Solar Ambassador team captain. Skip is also a board member of Esopus Creek Conservancy.
Mark Smith, chair of the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce, adds business depth to the campaign. He is also on the board of directors of the Saugerties Historical Society and first vice president of the Saugerties Tourism Committee. He and volunteer Ray Bergen are focused on reaching out to business owners with information about commercial installations.
Vivian Beatrice, hands-on owner of Cody Creek Farm, majored in environmental studies and is currently active in both the local anti-fracking and anti-pipeline efforts. She’s also a founding member of Sustainable Saugerties Transition Town, which yours truly and Ray Bergen also represent on the Solarize team. She’s the graphic design artist and website guru for the team.
Susan Murphy, longtime Clearwater Festival organizer, and Cara DeVito, retired from a journalism career with CBS, both residents of the Cantine Island Co-Housing Community, bring their skills in community organizing. Susan is focused on community outreach, Cara on promotional materials for Solarize Saugerties.
Mary O’Donnell, a founding member of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, heads the team, and also serves on the town Conservation Advisory Committee and the Ulster County Environment Management Council.
The kick-off for the Solarize Saugerties campaign is March 5 from 3-5 p.m. at the Senior Center. It will be both a celebratory community event, featuring art work by Saugerties elementary school students and appearances by local leaders, not to mention cookies specially designed and decorated by Hudson Valley Dessert Company. The presentation will be made by staff from Solarize Hudson Valley and all installers will be present to talk individually with residents and business owners.
Although the campaign is centered in Saugerties, the kick-off event and all workshops to follow are open to all residents of Ulster County and contiguous areas of Greene County. Hint: Come with your Central Hudson account number (or information on last year’s energy usage for your residence) and installers will be able to give you more personalized information on the specific benefits of solar installation.
Going solar is guaranteed to save you money on electricity bills and go a long way towards slowing and hopefully stopping climate change. This is the way, and the time is now! For more information, contact Solarize Saugerties at email@example.com and visit the Facebook page. Solarize Hudson Valley also has information on its website: www.solarize-hudsonvalley.org.
(Editor’s note: The writer is volunteering with Solarize Saugerties and handling their publicity.)