New group established to promote solar energy use

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 6:45pm

A newly-formed group called the Solar Initiative is holding an inaugural meeting designed to inform residents about a federal program that would allow homeowners to generate solar energy that could be sold back to the local power company at current market rates.

The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) was implemented to encourage, in a variety of ways, the conservation of electric energy and is run by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The PURPA program is being looked at as an option because it can be implemented despite the fact that there is currently a state-mandated cap on all net-metering projects on Block Island. Net metering allows residents and businesses to sell unused solar energy back to the grid.

Through the PURPA program, unused solar energy could be sold directly back to BIPCo at a fair market rate, and BIPCo would then use that energy for its customers, according to BIPCo President Jeffery Wright.

“We support that entirely — 110 percent,” said Wright.

Island resident Tony Pappas said the PURPA program would be offered to a wide range of island residents and business, including non-profits and people living in affordable housing units. Pappas said that the group would be looking into grant money so that these residents and businesses could install the solar units at no charge. The homeowners would cover operating costs after the installation.

Pappas said that an anonymous donor is helping to fund the installation of solar panels throughout the island, including such projects at the Island Free Library.

The second tier of possible users would be year-round island homeowners who could be offered a loan program at lower than market rates to install the clean energy system.

The third tier would be seasonal homeowners. “The Solar Initiative group would help those homeowners install the program, find out what their needs are and what kind of system they should have and work with them on that,” said Pappas.

There are implications for BIPCo, according to Wright. While the local power company would buy locally-generated solar power at the same rate they would pay for electricity from the grid, the more solar energy generated on the island would mean less revenue for the power company, which uses its money to pay for line and pole repairs, operating costs, and staff.

If the scales are tipped too far towards solar generation, the only way BIPCo can offset that revenue loss would be to raise rates, said Wright.

The Solar Initiative group will meet at Harbor Church on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3:30 p.m. The public is invited. Light refreshments will be served.