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Local Solar Companies Promoting ‘Buy Local’

The Solarize Mass program has seemingly taken off, bringing residents together for group buying to install residential photovoltaic arrays.But local installers aren’t very keen on how the program is being presented.Headed by the state’s Clean Energy Center, the program allows a town or group of towns to gather residents to purchase or lease solar arrays from a chosen company. The bulk purchasing is intended to lower the price for those who participate. Both Lee and Williamstown were chosen for the program and through a bid process, both chose Real Goods Solar from Colorado as the installer.

Local companies, however, say the program has also engendered salesmanship and misleading information from many out-of-state companies and that residents are getting rushed into making a decision without being fully educated on the options. They are now pleading their case for residents to buy local because once the program is gone, it’s the local installers who will still be here.

“I think it provides an educational tool for people to learn about it and get more involved with the tiered pricing offered by Real Goods Solar. But, I think one of the misnomers about it, unfortunately, is that they are eligible for an additional rebate or additional savings,” Andrew Guntlow, who manages New England Solar and Green Solutions in Williamstown, said recently.”It seems like there is a perception of [customers] getting more but that is not the case. All of the rebate programs, tax credits, are available to anyone.”

The companies bidding for a Solarize contract are required to provide leasing options. For a fixed cost, customers can have a system installed and pay a fixed price while benefiting from the energy savings. The leasing option alleviates the upfront cost of installing a system for the customer, increasing the number of participants in the program and thus, lowering the material costs in the group purchase.

But the installer also owns the system and so reaps the multiple tax benefits, then sells the tax credits at a profit.”The way it has been set up in Massachusetts is a winner take all,” said Chris Kilfoyle, who owns Berkshire Photovoltaics in Adams, another town seeking to join the Solarize program.

Kilfoyle said his company lost the bid on the Solarize contract for Williamstown. A leasing option is required in the bid but Kilfoyle says he doesn’t like offering them. Instead, he encourages customers to take out a home improvement loan to buy the system.Gutlow also said his company “isn’t’ comfortable” offering the leasing option after looking into it.”Far and away, owning your own system is far superior,” Guntlow said. “Individual ownership of a solar system is our priority to pass along the most benefit to the end user — it provides the most benefit over a leasing program.”

But it isn’t just the Solarize program that is changing the solar industry locally. The state has pushed solar power in recent years — far exceeding goals laid out by Gov. Deval Patrick to increase solar production. A mix of federal and the state tax credits have attracted larger companies from outside to the area.”The state incentive programs are so good that they are all rushing here to Massachusetts,” Kilfoyle said, adding that with the increased competition there has been an array of “sleazy salesmanship.”

“We’re trying to stop some of that exaggeration,” Kilfoyle said, pointing out a “0 down” advertisement for leasing options. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”State Sen. Benjamin Downing said the increasing presence of major firms creating tension with local contractors was something state officials “didn’t foresee.” The legislature formed the Clean Energy Center but didn’t expect the industry to take off like it did, he said.

But if the presence of too many solar companies is a problem, it is a problem Downing said he’d rather have than not enough.”One way or the other, solar is solar,” said Downing, who is the chairman of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy as well as sitting on the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change and the Joint Committee on Environment Natural Resources and Agriculture. “I’d rather being dealing with too many investors.”

Not all Solarize Mass contracts are going to out of state firms. SolarFlair of Framingham is providing installations for three groups in the east end of the state.Downing, however, agrees that the ownership model produces more benefits for the homeowner. And he agrees that local companies produce a larger benefit for the community because they employ local residents and the money is reinvested back into community.

“We are looking at different ways we can promote the clean energy economy,” Downing said, adding that the push for green jobs has produced between 60,000 and 70,000 jobs across the state in recent years.”That’s grown by 7 percent or 11 percent depending on how you measure it.”On the local level, the economic effects of the solar industry haven’t been analyzed. According to Berkshire Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Supranowicz, “the industry is so new that it isn’t calculated by federal standards.” But both Guntlow and Kilfoyle attest that they have grown tremendously in recent years.

As for the Solarize Mass program itself, Downing supports the program and the leasing option because it allows people who simply can’t afford ownership to benefit from stable and lower electricity costs. Not to mention the numerous environmental benefits.”The policies have been set up to get solar out as much as possible,” Downing said. “When people get a solar array on their roof, they get invested into the industry.”

Guntlow says there is a lot of “site specific” work that goes into designing a system and each one needs to be tailored to the property. That is where the local expertise is a benefit.New England Solar and Green Solutions is an offshoot of civil engineering company Guntlow and Associates, which has been located in Williamstown for more than 25 years. New England Solar and Green Solutions characterizes itself as a “one-stop shop” for all kinds of energy conservation work — from small wind power systems to solar to high-efficiency hot-water systems.

Guntlow knows the local electrical contractors who will be hooking the systems up and the steps needed to go through local building codes. Guntlow said he starts with a free estimate and will take the customer through every step — from executing a connection agreement to filing tax credit paperwork to turning the system on.”There are local contractors available in the Berkshires and, over the years, there has been a great campaign to buy in the Berkshires. We feel that is really important to let people know that New England Solar and Green Solutions is out here, in Williamstown, two doors down from Town Hall,” Guntlow said. “We like to honor our contracts with great service because we see these people, our customers in the grocery store and around town. We like to have a good name for ourselves.”

Berkshire Photovoltaics has been in business for 28 years, starting first in North Adams and later moving to Adams. Kilfoyle has installed the very first solar array in many of the Berkshire towns.”We’ve been doing this a long time. We know what works,” Kilfoyle said. “We’ve grown 500 percent since 1997.”Not only have the two companies been staples in the county, their owners say they help the economy in other ways. Kilfoyle said the steel and other material used in many of the installations are purchased from local companies and local electricians are hired.So with all of the rush toward the Solarize program, local companies are asking residents to relax and think about their options.

“We’re going to offer the best price we can give them without holding them to whether other people sign up or not. That is important, we’re not forcing somebody into something they are not ready to do,” Guntlow said. “We want to make sure people have a full understanding of the great benefits that come with owning a solar installation.”