solar_bnnrbttm120The Standing-Room-Only crowd wasn't there for the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  Instead they jammed the Lansing Town courtroom Tuesday to learn about converting to solar energy.  Until now installing solar power has been a vague, mysterious, pricey future notion for most people. Solar Tompkins is changing that perception, as the 80 people who packed the Town Hall can attest.  The largely volunteer organization is employing a winning strategy to get as many Tompkins County homeowners as possible off the grid by making it affordable and easy to install a solar power system.

"Our number one goal is increasing the rate of solar deployment," said Program Director Melissa Kemp.  "We have a particular goal this year of doubling the existing solar installed capacity in the whole county.  Right now we have about 300-plus residential solar systems in Tompkins County.  In the next 12 months we hope to double that."

solar_outside400At least 80 people surged into the Lansing Town Hall to learn how they can solarize their homes

The basic idea is to make the process simple for potential customers and then to make it affordable by creating an economy of scale.  The program allows people to simply sign up without having to do extensive research that program volunteers have already done to find the best technology and best practices available. 

"We have done that as a program and we are passing that on to you so you don't have to worry about those things," Kemp said.  "If you want to get into it you can, but you don't have to.  We want to make this a mainstream, simple thing like buying an appliance or buying a car."

The more people that sign up with the three local installers the program has partnered with, the lower the price is.  Solar Tompkins brings in the customers so the companies spend less on marketing and pass the savings to program participants.

The volume of installations isn't just a local phenomenon.  Kemp said that more Solar PV systems have been installed in the last 18 months than in the previous 30 years combined.  This year the local program aims to facilitate the installation of 2 MW of solar PV in at least 300 homes and small businesses in Tompkins County.  Pricing is based on how successful they are at reaching that goal.

At the start systems cost between $3.50 and $3.79 per watt.  When signups reach more than 33% of the goal, pricing falls to between $3.25 and $3.59.  After 66% the prices fall again to between $3.20 and $3.50.  The range of pricing is due to different variations of solar systems provided by the three installer partners.  Kemp noted that the program pricing is about 20% under typical market pricing, and said she is confident they will reach the third tier of participation.

"The Solar Tompkins program draws from the solarize model in a number of ways," she said.  "The solarize model is a set of techniques used across the country for making solar easier and to be deployed faster.  The key points are attractive, lower than market pricing, and increasing the volume.  As volume in certain businesses goes up, the amount of money per customer you have to make to keep your business going goes down."

Systems the program offers are connected to the grid and electricity that is used or passed back to the grid is monitored on electronic electric meters.  Kemp said that the cost of power for a year could be nothing, because unused power that is sent from a home to the grid builds up credit in the sunnier months that pay for power taken from the grid in the gray winter months.  She said that all three installers offer options like Web monitoring or storage batteries.

solar_melissakemp400Solar Tompkins Program Director Melissa Kemp in the Lansing Town Hall

Kemp also outlined a series of state and federal incentives that bring the cost of installing a system down.  She cited a typical 7,000W system that would cost nearly $24,500 at market pricing.  After NYSERDA, state and federal incentives she said the cash flow would be reduced to $7,875 and the final out of pocket expense would be just over $6,000.

When a homeowner signs up he or she is asked to choose one of the three providers.  A free site review is provided to make sure the property is suitable, followed by a discounted price quote.  At that point there is no obligation to go forward.  If a contract is signed Kemp says the system is installed in a timely fashion.  She encouraged participants to get their friends to sign up, which lowers the price for everyone. 

If the attendance in Lansing is typical it shouldn't be hard for Solarize Tompkins to reach its goal.  The Lansing meeting was the fifth in a series of 20 scheduled across Tompkins County.  Lansing people who missed Tuesday's meeting can go to any of the meetings scheduled in nearby municipalities.