In Addison County, Solar Hot Water Takes Off
12/30/11 7:34AM By Melody Bodette  Download MP3
(Host) Many more houses in Addison County are getting water that's been heated by the sun.
Since the inception of a new program this fall, 95 houses have installed solar hot water heating systems.
And as VPR's Melody Bodette reports, that's been good news for one local business.
(Bodette) On a snowy night at the Lincoln Library a handful of people are peppering Dan Conant with questions:
"Can you put it in the side of your house? How long does a system last? Can you switch to all solar?"
(Bodette) Conant is a coordinator for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. For months, he's been holding weekly sessions in Addison County towns to get the information out on VPIRG's solar communities program.
The program cut the price of solar hot water systems in half. It got discounts through group buying and by taking advantage of federal and state incentives. V-PIRG also teamed up with a local credit union to offer low-interest financing for homeowners.
Conant says the combination of factors has made the program successful.
(Conant) "It's the buzz of everybody seeing solar up on their neighbor's house. And beyond that I think it's just that we've finally made it easy. And we've got the price down to the point where it makes sense to most folks."
(Bodette) Conant says installing a renewable energy system is a process. Often, people would get halfway through it and then throw up their hands in frustration. But through this program, V-PIRG has done much of the work for them.
If people purchase a solar hot water system through the program it costs around $5,000. When spread out through the loan, Conant says the cost became comparable to what families already are paying for hot water.
(Conant) "So that was our entire goal with this program, was to make it so folks can pay the same as what they were already paying, so now it's not just the eco thing to do it's the economical thing to do as well."
But some at the Lincoln meeting left a bit unsure, including Melanie Rogers
(Rogers) "I've got to really look at the costs, because I've got a small household, and if it works out to be only 10 to 20 percent of my household costs, it might not be effective for me to do it."
(Bodette) Many of her neighbors have been convinced. The number of solar hot water systems in the county has increased five-fold since the program began. And it's been great for an Addison County business, Vergennes-based Country Home Products.
Country Home Products has been selling the Sunward solar hot water system for two years. The design has been used in Canada for three decades.
Solar panels pre-heat water so it takes much less energy to bring it up to the desired temperature in a traditional water system.
Sunward's Tom Hughes says it made sense to team up with VPIRG:
(Hughes) "The VPIRG program has been terrific because we've been able to save some of our own resources by consolidating assessments, doing 3 or 4 in one town on the same day. It's added efficiency to our program, that efficiency applies to the installers, so it's easier and that's helped us lower the cost somewhat."
(Bodette) Sunward assembles the system in Winooski. The increased demand has been handled by Sunward's existing staff, but additional subcontractors were hired to install the systems.
Hughes says he thinks there will be much more demand for solar systems.
(Hughes) "While we've been very successful in the past 8 months, we've only scratched the surface in terms of the number of homes in Vermont that have great solar resource and would be great candidates for solar hot water."
(Bodette) VPIRG agrees. A similar program in Montpelier added 75 solar hot water systems, a Chittenden County program for solar electricity drew in 110 homes. And while they're not quite sure where they're headed next, they do expect interest in solar to grow.
For VPR News, I'm Melody Bodette.