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Solar Panel Information


See footage of Tyngsborough’s solar field (built on a former landfill).

The Town of Tyngsborough encourages individuals, businesses, and institutions to install solar energy systems. Renewable energy, coupled with efforts to make our buildings more energy efficient, can save money and make our community more resilient to energy price spikes.

The Town has pulled together information from many sources to help you learn about solar energy, decide if it’s right for you, and then move through the permitting and installation process. If there are pieces we’ve left out, please let us know at conservation@tyngsboroughma.gov.

Here’s what you will find:

Part 1: Residential and Commercial Solar Fundamentals

1. Solar Basics
2. The Solar Transaction
3. Free Web Tools Will Generate a Rough Estimate
4. Getting Bids, Selecting an Installer
5. Consumer Protections
6. The Contract
7. Uncertainty and the Price of Electricity

Part 2: Installing Solar Systems in Tyngsborough: Zoning and Permits

1. Tyngsborough’s zoning allows solar everywhere
2. Solar systems require building and electrical permits (checklist)
3. Solar systems must be inspected and approved (checklist)
4. National Grid needs to make the final connection

 

Part 1: Residential and Commercial Solar Fundamentals

1. Solar Basics: Soup to nuts introduction to residential solar energy systems

a. SEIA doc: Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power (Feb 2016) in English

b. and in Spanish: Guía de energía solar para el consumidor residential

2. The Solar Transaction: Know what you’re buying!

a. Owning or LeasingA Massachusetts Homeowner’s Guide to Solar Leases, Loans, and PPAs (Mass DOER (CESA))

b. Borrowing to pay for your system: The State of Massachusetts’ Clean Energy Center has created a solar loan program to reduce the costs of borrowing for solar energy systems. Mass Solar Loan is working with 17 financial institutions and more than 100 solar installers to provide straightforward low-interest, fixed-rate financing and quality installations. Qualified low-to-moderate income borrowers may qualify for special rates. Details are at www.masssolarloan.com. Other financial institutions will finance solar systems independent of the Mass Solar Loan program so don’t hesitate to find the best arrangement for your needs.

c. The Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit: Uncle Sam will cover almost one-third of the cost of your solar system. To encourage individuals and businesses to invest in solar energy, Congress created the Solar Investment Tax Credit. When you file your income taxes for the year in which you invested in a solar system, you will receive a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the installation cost. That offer is good through 2019. In 2020, the credit drops to 26 percent and in 2021 it drops to 22 percent. The residential credit will end in 2023 but the commercial credit will continue at 10 percent.

You get that credit only if you buy and own the system yourself. If you lease a system or sign a Power Purchase Agreement, the installer gets the tax credit (and should pass along some of the savings to you in your purchase price).

The Solar Energy Industry Association has a two-page fact sheet about the Investment Tax Credit

d. The Massachusetts Solar and Wind Tax Credit

Homeowners who install solar energy systems (or other renewable-energy systems) on their primary residence may receive a credit on their state income taxes of 15 percent of the cost of the system up to a maximum of $1,000.  The tax form itself explains the details.

e. Net Metering in Massachusetts

When your solar system generates more electricity than you use, the excess flows to the grid. “Net metering” accounts for your net consumption and reduces your electric bill accordingly. Over time, these savings should pay for your system and eventually make you a profit on the investment. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources has published a set of frequently asked questions about net metering.

f. “SRECS” and the new “SMART” program

Because Massachusetts puts a high value on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it requires that utilities buy a portion of their electricity from renewable sources and solar generators in particular. To facilitate these transactions, the State created the “Solar Renewable Energy Certificates” (SREC) system which meant that even small residential systems could generate significant annual cash payments for their owners for 10 years. The new SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) program, which is still awaiting approval from the Department of Public Utilities, is likely to affect systems installed after January 1, 2018, and will mean somewhat lower payments.  The DOER proposal is here: http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/doer/rps-aps/225-cmr-20-draft-clean-081117.pdf

3. Free Web Tools Will Generate a Rough Estimate

Once you’ve got a sense of how solar systems work and how people pay for them, you may want to get an estimate of what kind of system might fit on your roof and how much it might cost. Installers will be happy to come to your home to give you precise estimates, but you may want to start the process on your own and on line with no pressure. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL in Golden, Colorado) has developed a free system called pvwatts that is simple, safe, and reliable.

Just go to http://pvwatts.nrel.gov/ and type in your address and a few other pieces of information (not your name). The system will estimate the size of system your roof can support, how much electricity it will produce each month, and how much the electricity will be worth in dollars.

Google has created Project Sunroof (https://www.google.com/get/sunroof#p=0) to help homeowners and businesses see the solar potential in their roofs. Project Sunroof colors its satellite images to show which parts of a roof get good sun and which are in shaded by trees or other roofs. It’s illuminating! Google uses these images and information you may provide to generate another estimate of the financial value of a system that fits your roof.

Another popular place to start is www.energysage.com. Here, you type in your name, address, and email address and EnergySage will send you information about your home’s potential and let its network of installers know you’re interested in PV. The installers will send you estimates from the data you submit and you can start comparing potential installers’ prices and promises. Only provide your name and email address if you want these sales calls.

4. Getting bids, selecting an installer

Once you have a basic understanding of your options for owning or leasing a system and a rough sense of how large a system you might install, you should be ready to contact installers for estimates. They will come to your building, inspect the structure, take direct measurements on your roof to determine how much sunlight it receives. If the roof isn’t well suited for panels, the installers will consider whether ground-mounted systems might be a better fit for your lot.

CAUTION: The solar business has become highly competitive and some installers may be aggressive. DO NOT sign any documents until you are ready to sign a final contract that you fully understand. DO NOT authorize the installer to start applying for permits on your behalf until you have signed a final contract. DO read through the Consumer Protections section below.

Installers: The Mass Solar Loan program web page lists more than 100 installers who work in the state ( www.masssolarloan.com). This is a good place to look for a company that may be right for you, particularly if you intend to buy your system outright. Several communities in the region have sponsored “solarize” campaigns which set up group-purchasing mechanisms to get discounts on installations. The installers who participated in those programs will be well known in the region. Some excellent solar installers specialize in leased installations or Power Purchase Agreements, however, and they may not show up on the Mass Solar Loan list.

5. Consumer protections:

The solar industry doesn’t want any dissatisfied customers. The Solar Energy Industry Association (www.seia.org) has published a code of ethics that its members must sign (http://www.seia.org/policy/consumer-protection/code-ethics) and developed a comprehensive consumer protection section on its website. People considering a solar project should scan those documents and pay particular attention to the model contract disclosure forms that SEIA encourages installers to prepare and sign for every job. The forms require installers to be explicit about all the assumptions they are making about solar production and electricity costs and to spell out exactly how and when they would increase their charges in the case of a lease or PPA. The forms cut through some of the confusing detail that may be buried in a contract. When asking for an estimate, also ask the installers to complete the appropriate disclosure form.

Residential Purchase Disclosure Form

Addendum regarding the cost per kilowatt hour

Residential Lease Disclosure form

Residential PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) form

6. The Contract

Your installer will develop a contract for you to sign. Read it and ask questions until you completely understand it. Ask your installer to fill in the appropriate disclosure form (see the previous section) and be sure the contract terms match those in the form and are agreeable to you. Some sections may surprise you. For example, to know how well the systems are performing, most installers add wifi devices to the system to report data over the internet. If you’re leading the system, your contract may specify that you have to provide that internet service.

7. Uncertainty and the Price of Electricity

Solar systems should last 15 or 20 years and a lot can happen in the energy sector during that time. Most people invest in solar to save money on electricity. How much you save over the life of the panels or how quickly the system “pays for itself” depends largely on changes in the price utilities charge for the electricity they provide. Changes in state or federal energy and tax policies may affect the value of the investment. Most solar advocates assume that the growing demand to reduce greenhouse gases will protect the underlying value of solar power but things change.

Companies that lease solar systems to homeowners or institutions manage this uncertainty by building price escalators into their contracts requiring the customer to pay more over time. The SEIA disclosure forms help show exactly how and when these escalators kick in and what assumptions the company is making about changes in market electricity prices. If you don’t find those assumptions plausible, you may want a different deal.

Tyngsborough has taken advantage of the Massachusetts “Municipal Aggregation” program and negotiated a relatively low electricity rate for all customers in town. That base price is a boon for the community but makes solar somewhat less economically attractive. Be sure that your solar company is using the Tyngsborough price in its cost and savings estimate, not some average Massachusetts or New England price.

8. Insurance

Be sure to let your home insurance company know about your new solar energy system: you may find that the system is already covered or that extending coverage to the system may add to your bill.

 

Part 2: Installing Solar Systems in Tyngsborough: Zoning and Permits

1. Tyngsborough’s zoning allows solar everywhere

Tyngsborough covers solar systems in its provisions for “accessory uses.” The bylaws allow all residences to install PV as an accessory use. The bylaws also allow commercial and industrial properties in residential districts to install PV as accessory uses. The Planning Board is considering revisions to the zoning bylaws to make it easier for businesses to install PV on their roofs and to clarify where ground-mounted systems of various sizes are permitted.

2. Solar systems require building, electrical, and Fire Department permits

Before installing a solar system, your installer will need to apply for and receive the appropriate building permit and electrical permit. The Building Department will also secure the necessary permit with the Fire Department. The “Solar Permitting and Inspections Checklist” explains each step of the process and the fees involved. The Tyngsborough Building Department issues most permits within three business days of receiving a completed application.

3. Solar systems must be inspected and approved

Your solar installer will work with the Building Department to schedule the necessary inspections to ensure that the system has been installed properly and will operate safely. The details of the process are described in the permitting checklist.

4. National Grid needs to make the final connection

Before your installer can energize your solar system, National Grid will have to complete the “interconnection” process. Making this happen is your installer’s responsibility. Interconnection is not a trivial matter and is best dealt with early in the process. Well before you purchase panels or put anything on your roof, your installer should ensure that National Grid will accept the location and size of your planned system.

5. Solar Permitting and Inspections Checklist

Permit and Inspection Checklist: Solar Energy Systems

The Town of Tyngsborough supports the growth of solar photovoltaic energy systems with an expedited permit process that ensures that systems are installed properly.  Protecting the safety of homeowners, businesses, and first responders is the Town’s primary concern.

This Checklist describes the permitting process for small-to-medium sized systems (up to 250 kW), whether roof-mounted or ground-mounted.  Large systems (250 kW or more) require special permits and have a totally separate process.  Contact the Planning Department at 978-649-2300 x 115 for details on special permits.

We have a process in place that normally delivers a rooftop solar permit in three business days.

Tyngsborough Requires Two Permits:

  • Building Permit: ensures that the building can support the panels and that they are installed securely.
  • Electrical Permit: ensures that all wiring is safe and secure.

It’s the Installer’s Job

Typically, the company hired to install the solar system does ALL of the permit work. The building owner should confirm with the installer that he or she secures the necessary permits but should otherwise leave the details to the installer. The installer will typically pay the permit fees and include their costs in the final bill to the customer. Tyngsborough has expedited the process with an online permitting system. Completed applications are typically processed in five to seven business days.

Permit-Process Details

The installer needs to create an account (no charge) and login at Tyngsborough’s online system, ViewPoint Cloud. Instructions for using ViewPoint are here: https://tyngsboroughma.viewpointcloud.com/#/1080.

1. The installer completes the building permit application describing the location and the system to be installed. In addition, the installer submits:

  • Installer’s license
  • Certificate of insurance with the “Town of Tyngsborough” listed as an additional insured
  • Workers’ compensation affidavit
  • Disposal of debris affidavit
  • Building plans stamped by a structural engineer attesting to soundness of the proposed installation (Most solar installers send photographs of the roof and rafters to an off-site engineer for review and approval; structural engineers rarely are needed on site.)
  • The structural engineer’s letter of affidavit explaining any additional structural work needed to support the system
  • A signed contract with the building owner describing the system and the price for the work
  • The permit fee

3. The installer completes the electrical permit application online, usually at the same time he or she completes the building permit. The application requires the installer to submit:

  • License
  • Certificate of insurance with the “Town of Tyngsborough” listed as the insured
  • The permit fee
  • Workers’ compensation affidavit

4. When the Building Department determines that an application is complete, a department member will use the online system to send the application to:

  • The Tyngsborough Tax Collector and Assessor who checks the building owner is current on his or her property taxes. (The Town won’t issue permits to owners in arrears.)
  • The Conservation Department and the Health Department, if the system is to be mounted on the ground rather than a roof. (The Conservation Department checks the system location to be sure it won’t impinge on wetlands and the like; the Health Department protects the integrity of wells and septic systems.) These departments report back to the Building Inspector if there are any problems.
  • The Fire Department reviews each application and adds details about the systems to the Department’s database so first responders will know where solar panels and electrical components are if they arrive to fight a fire. The Fire Department used to require a separate written application for this review; now the process is managed internally, saving applicants time. The Department collects a $50 fee for the review process at the time the applicant files for a building permit.

5. The Building Inspector reviews the material and either issues a building permit or emails the applicant with an explanation of the problem. Turn-around for this review is usually five to seven business days. The Electrical Inspector does the same once the application is received.

6. The Building Department notifies the installer that permits are complete and either mails them to the installer (for an additional fee of $2) or makes them available at the town office for the installer to pick up in-person.

 Installation and Inspections

1. With permits in hand, the installer completes the work, then sends photographs back to the company’s structural engineer showing that the job was completed as planned. The engineer stamps a post-installation affidavit and the installer sends that to the Building Department with a request for an inspection.

2. The installer schedules appointments for inspections by calling the Building Department at 978-649-2300 x 112. The inspections are usually performed within 48 hours of the request for an inspection.

3. The Building Inspector will conduct an on-site inspection to ensure that the system was installed properly and according to plan.

4. The Electrical Inspector does a separate on-site inspection to determine if the system can be energized safely.

5. Finally, the utility needs to interconnect the solar system to the grid. That step is not overseen by the town.

 Utility Interconnection: Know Before You Buy

Unless you are living “off the grid,” your panels won’t be useful until National Grid connects them to both your building and its distribution network.  This “interconnection” process can create delays and frustration because National Grid has to install a new meter on your building and may have other priorities or technical problems adding new distributed energy resources to a particular circuit.

The solar installer should manage the interconnection process for the building owner.  The owner should understand the steps and be certain, before investing in the project, that National Grid will permit the interconnection in a timely manner.

Fees

For residential solar energy systems,

Building Permit:                      $  55 plus $10 per $1,000 of total contract cost

Electrical Permit:                    $  50

Fire Department review:         $  50

Fee for a $15,000 system:       $305

For commercial solar energy systems,

Building Permit:                      $  55 plus $13 per $1,000 of total contract cost

Electrical Permit:                    $ 100 plus $2 per $1,000 of total contract cost

Fire Department review:         $  50

Fee for a $50,000 system:       $955