ARET: At work on energy in the North Country

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January 24, 2016, will be the beginning of the end for residents of Bethlehem, Easton, Franconia, and Sugar Hill…at least if they want a good deal on solar power for their homes. The kick-off of the solarize campaign initiated by the Ammonoosuc Regional Energy Team (ARET) to help local homeowners take advantage of a 30-percent federal tax break on solar installations will expire at the end of 2016.

Wait until 2017 and you lose 20 percent on that tax break. “That’s why our campaign ends on May 1, so that all of the installations can be completed in time to get the tax break,” explains David Van Houten, president of ARET. 

“Solarize” campaigns have become popular across the country as ways to overcome the most common barriers to residential installation of solar energy.  By gathering local homeowners together to meet with a pre-screened solar-energy installation contractor, solarize campaigns lower costs to homeowners and reduce lag time in actual installation by helping to overcome customer inertia by building trust and presenting a competitive price for a limited time.

“We want to get everybody to one, big thing where there's press, a lot of noise, and a lot of people and enthusiasm, and get a bunch of people to sign up,” Van Houten says.  “We figure that 25 to 30 is a reasonable goal for people signing up that night and 50 would be outstanding; I don't think it's possible, but who knows?”

The “big thing” will be at Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, beginning at 4 p.m. on January 24th.  The biggest reason to be at the kickoff for Solarize Ammonoosuc is to get questions answered, Van Houten explains:  Representatives from O’Meara Solar, the supplier and installer selected by ARET through a request-for-proposal process, will be on hand to explain how and why solar works, even in northern New Hampshire.

“We're going to introduce ARET and explain why we do what we do, and then we’re going to turn it over to the installer to talk about how solar installations work and what it would mean for homes,” Van Houten explains, “and then we’re going to ask people to sign up.” What people will be signing up for is just a no-obligation visit from O’Meara Solar.  The visit will comprise an hour or less of home assessment and explanation, Van Houten says, “and usually, before the installer leaves, they hand over a draft quotation.”

Van Houten says ARET is hoping Solarize Ammonoosuc will result in “maybe 75 or 100 quotes out there. Some people will say ‘I’ll only do it if you prove it can work’; some will say ‘I think it's going to cost too much’; other people say that net metering doesn't work.  But you get them altogether in a room talking about it and by themselves they're going to make a lot of those misconceptions go away,” Van Houten believes.  “So, you can come on January 24 and get answers to your questions. There’s a final deadline to sign up for a site visit and a quote of May 1. Between those two times, we are going to be having open houses, tours, potlucks, workshops, stories in the paper, all so that people can learn. 

“That's really all we're asking people to do is get a quote,” he adds, “because if you get a visit from a real solar professional then you will know what it's really going to cost and what the real benefits will be.” Van Houten says people “just hear a lot of assumptions that it’s going to cost too much or there's this problem or that problem, but when you talk to somebody who's in the field, a lot of those problems go away.”

While the problem of cost isn’t going to go away, it will get smaller for those who participate in the ARET solarize program. In addition to the 30-percent tax break, participants in the four towns will also benefit from group discounts from the installer, based on the amount of kilowatt capacity contracted, further lowering costs and improving the long-term cost benefits of solar, which, Van Houten points out, will only increase with time.

“Solar is really a no-brainer,” he says. “You just put the thing in and you don't have energy supply or cost to worry about; it’s there and it just works."

“It’s just a matter of time. Oil is not going to be cheap forever; it may be available for a long time, but it's going to get more and more expensive.  Solar and other renewables are going to be more and more competitive,” he says. “It's already, with new construction, cheaper to use solar.”  

ARET is an outgrowth of the New Hampshire Carbon Coalition efforts during presidential primaries in the mid-2000s, when local energy committees (LECs) were formed following passage in 164 New Hampshire towns of the New Hampshire Climate Change resolution calling for federal action on global warming.  LECs were formed in Franconia and Bethlehem and Littleton; when it became apparent that more could be accomplished working on a regional level, ARET was formed and became a non-profit organization in 2011.

“So we've been picking away at [the climate and energy issue] since 2007. It was mostly energy fairs, light bulb drives, various workshops,” Van Houten says. “We had a wood energy forum at the White Mountain School, where they have facilities and we could take people into the boiler room and show them the pellet boiler, and the energy manager and the business manager were there to talk about it. 

“People really like to come and see what it is you're talking about and all of a sudden it becomes clear,” he says.  The Grassroots Fund gave ARET a Seed grant in 2014 to support a solar energy workshop and is supporting the current solarize program with a Grow grant. “The Ammonoosuc Regional Energy Team exemplifies the kind of ongoing grassroots energy education and action work that is so needed in our local communities,” says Leigh Cameron, Energy and Climate Program Coordinator at the Grassroots Fund.  “They have continued to find new ways to work in their communities to introduce individuals and institutions to new and more viable energy choices.”

“Another thing we've been doing recently is trying to look and see where there's an opportunity that someone may not recognize,” Van Houten says.  As an example, he cites two elementary schools in ARET communities that needed to replace underground oil tanks.

“That's not cheap; it's in the $60,000 to $70,000 range,” he points out. “So ARET met with the school boards and suggested they think about switching to wood pellets.  They’d still have to spend $20,000 on getting that old oil tank out of the ground, but then spend the remaining money on a wood pellet boiler, rather than being stuck on oil for another 30 or 40 years,” he says. 

In both cases, ARET’s work with the school boards and mobilizing the voters worked “and now both of those buildings are heated with wood pellets,” he says.

“It's cleaner, it's cheaper, it supports the local economy; it's good in all kinds of ways,” including, he notes, as “a great example in the school setting for the kids. 

“And this would not have happened if ARET had not stepped in and said ‘you know this is an opportunity for change.’ And to me, that's one of the examples that's most powerful about the local energy committees: we know what the facilities are, who the people are, who to call if you’re going to have a prayer of getting anything done. It sure is a lasting benefit of the Carbon Coalition,” Van Houten says.

It’s hoped that “the big thing” on January 24th at Polly’s Pancake Parlor will mark the beginning of the latest opportunity for change in the Ammonoosuc energy region.  But it seems apparent that, even if the 30-percent federal tax credit ends in 2016, ARET will continue moving forward long after.

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