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Solar program has success in small upstate New York county

Ellen Abbott

The thing that strikes you when you walk up to Jimmy Golub's farm on the western edge of Madison County are the giant solar panels covering the part of the roof on his barn that faces west. The 45 panels are part of a 10 kilowatt solar system, that provides all the electricity the farm needs.

"So basically we've eliminated our bill," he says. "The only charge we get is a $15 change for a line charge."

Of course, he's still paying off a loan to pay for the $70,000 system, but with the state and federal tax credits and various grants, the ultimate cost is as much as what his electric bill used to be.

"You're paying out to National Grid or NYSEG every month; you're shelling out money," says Golub. "So what's the difference whether you shell out a couple of hundred bucks to them, or you shell it out to the bank? The only difference is, in five, six, seven years, you're done."

Like used car ads

It's that sense that solar is affordable that played a big part in Golub's decision to go solar.

And it's evident in Solarize Madison flyers that almost read like a used car ad. In big red letters they say you can get 75 percent off the price of a complete solar hot water system. Changing that perception is one reason Solarize Madison has been successful, says  Solarize Madison Project Manager Jan Meyer.

"There's always this myth that it's going to be a 30 to 40 year payback before they're going to see benefits from their system. And with our program, by offering a little bit of a discount by our volume purchasing component of it, we can bring that down to less than 10 years," says Meyer.

This small central New York county has become a poster child for solar energy. The first year of Solarize Madison County was a success and the program is looking to expand in year two.

These Solarize programs started out as a neighborhood initiative in Portland, Ore. four years ago. Since then, they've spread across the country like wildfire, using bulk purchasing to bring down the cost of materials, and then  offering support to homeowners and businesses, interested in going solar.

Solarize Madison was it's first foray into New York state, moving ahead with the support of the county, the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board and Morrisville State College.

Last year Solarize Madison installed 29 Systems, producing 184 Killowatts of solar power. County planner Jamie Hart, who's also a Solaraize Madison project manager, says interest  is high.

"Seeing 200 people come out to hear about this program last year, we do all kinds of things in the planning department and we never see that volume of interest in most things," Hart says. "And this goes to show that people are interested in this, they've just never had anyone walk them through it or teach them about it."

What's next?

So the next step for Solarize Madison is to offer homeowners the option of a  solar hot water system.

"If you're wanting to get into solar, but you don't want to have a large system in your yard or on your roof, solar hot water is a great entry into the renewable energy market," says Meyers.

System installer Ben Blasczak says the system uses only two roof panels to collect sunlight.

"It's a closed loop system," he explains. "It goes down into the tank, and there's a heat exchanger and it passes hot water into the heat exchanger and into your domestic water tank."

Beyond that, growth is coming in other communities in upstate New York that are  jumping on the solarize bandwagon. Meyer has been in Tompkins County which is starting a program in the towns of  Caroline, Dryden and Danby. Genesee County and the city of Hornell have also started up solarize programs, and Meyer is hearing interest from Oneida County as well.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.