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Moving Forward, Looking Back: Sun shines on town's green roots

Published 6:40 am, Wednesday, November 21, 2012
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By today's standards, the good people who settled our town in 1639 were environmental superstars. In a world with no fossil fuels, no engines, and no electricity, they cleverly exploited the energy that nature offered them. Wind-powered boats brought them across the Atlantic; their mills ran on the hydropower of river currents and tides. Travel and labor were self-powered, with assists from domesticated animals. They were obsessive recyclers.

A snarky environmentalist might frown on them for burning wood for heat and light, but I think we can cut them a little slack, given the lack of alternatives.

If the Puritan "carbon footprint" was a baby shoe, ours is Shaquille O'Neal's sneaker, and even those size-22's are getting tight. Our planet is showing clear signs of overuse and neglect, and the time has come to pay serious attention to solutions (climate-change deniers: cut it out already). We can all agree that returning to the 17th century way of life is a bit much to ask, because that would mean no sit-down lawnmowers. Most of us have taken some basic environmental steps, but what else can we reasonably do that would have more impact?

Recently, I took myself down to the Pequot Library to hear about a pilot project called "Solarize Fairfield." Solar energy has always had great appeal. Turning those countless gazillions of energy-packed photons streaming down from the sun into clean electricity is an elegant concept. But the prevailing notion is that it doesn't work very well, and even if it did, it's too expensive.

I came away with a whole new understanding: solar technology is ready for prime time and is economically feasible. With the incentives built into the Solarize Fairfield pilot to make it even more attractive, I decided that the time to get those photons working for me is now. I'm goin' solar. The pilot runs until mid-December, so there's still time to see if it works for you, too. Visit www.solarizect.com or call 860-241-2620.

Fairfield competed successfully to be one of four towns in the Solarize Connecticut pilot program administered by the Connecticut Energy Financing and Investment Authority (CEFIA, www.ctcleanenergy.com ) and the John Merck Fund. The pilot encourages the adoption of residential solar systems through education, marketing and outreach, combined with a tiered pricing structure that decreases costs as more people participate. A community chooses a single solar installer so that technology and pricing are pre-determined. Fairfield chose Astrum Solar (www.astrumsolar.com), the leading full-service residential solar provider headquartered in the eastern U.S.

It's time to shake off some old notions. New-generation solar panels are very sturdy and efficient, and highly reliable because there are no moving parts. Solar electricity is being rapidly adopted across the country. While still a small percentage of total electrical capacity, it's had a 65 percent compound annual growth from 2005 to 2010, about a third of which is residential. The solar industry employs more than 100,000 people. Solar is rapidly moving from the fringes of the energy market into the mainstream.

The biggest stumbling block for most people has been the cost. But let's take a closer look.

The installed cost per watt of output has been cut in half over the past decade as technology improves and as the market expands, and there are financial incentives through CEFIA as well as a federal tax credit to lower costs even more. You can purchase a system outright, or you can lease one.

Here's a quick-and-basic example, leaving out procedural details. Let's say that after state and federal incentives, a fully-guaranteed system that would eliminate your annual $1,200 electric bill would cost $10,000. In a bank account, $10,000 earns you next to nothing these days, but invested in solar panels, you'd get a 12 percent annual return by not paying UI bills. You would recoup your investment after about eight years, and after that, your electricity would be virtually free.

If you don't have $10,000 sitting around, you can lease a system. There's almost no upfront cost, and although the savings are not as great as with a purchase, you will have more money in your pocket right off the bat.

Solarize Fairfield is by no means the town's first effort to go green. It's the latest of a quiet series of clean energy initiatives that began in 2004, when the town formed the Clean Energy Task Force. It set and achieved the goal of getting 20 percent of the electricity for municipal buildings from renewable energy sources by the year 2010. This was truly a community effort. Fairfield earned seven solar systems for municipal facilities because hundreds of us signed up for "CTCleanEnergyOptions," paying a little more to have our electricity come from renewable energy sources. Fairfield has several vehicles that run on natural gas. Even before Solarize Fairfield, over 40 residences had installed solar arrays, as have several local businesses. Morethan 2,000 homes underwent energy audits (www.CTEnergyInfo.com , Home Energy Solutions) that took hundreds of dollars off annual energy bills.

Solar power -- it's worth a look. The founders of Fairfield would be touched by your virtue and impressed by your shrewdness. And the planet would say "thank you."

(Thanks to Larry Kaley of the Clean Energy Task Force, Bob Wall of CEFIA, and the staff at Astrum Solar.)

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: rblumen2@gmail.com.