Madison looks at innovative strategies to promote solar energy

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From an article by Steven Verburg in the Wisconsin State Journal:

The solar array installed on Patty Prime’s home on Madison’s East Side cost $44,000 and has a 5.8-kilowatt capacity. A typical system for a Madison home costs $15,000 and has a capacity of one or two kilowatts, said the city’s solar consultant Larry Walker. Prime’s system started working around Jan. 1 and recently began generating more energy than she uses. She said her MG&E bills, which last year cost her up to $300 a month, came bearing credits of $46 in March and $96 in April. “We’re still a month away from the solstice,” she said.

The $44,000 solar panel array on Patty Prime’s roof started turning sunbeams into voltage Jan. 1, and within weeks it set her electric meter spinning backwards.

“It reduced our bills right away,” said Prime, who lives on Sidney Street in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood on Madison’s East Side. “The last two months we’ve had a credit. So they are paying us.”

But Prime is one of fewer than a dozen homeowners who have installed systems with the help of a city consultant who has evaluated nearly 200 properties since 2008.

So solar advocates are looking at new strategies, including working through the city’s network of neighborhood associations to lower costs and provide technical assistance, said city Facilities and Sustainability Manager Jeanne Hoffman.

By August, a website will go live allowing residents to view aerial images of their homes to see how trees and other factors affect their suitability for solar power. “You’ll be able to draw onto that a solar array and be able see how much energy that solar array will draw,” Hoffman said.

The city will redouble efforts at persuading businesses to install solar arrays.

And several groups are examining the recent successes in Portland, Ore., which worked through neighborhood associations and is seeing solar installed in hundreds of homes, Hoffman said.

“We’re really looking for neighborhoods who can partner with the city,” Hoffman said.

Bulk buying can lower the average price of $8,500 per home after state and federal financial incentives, said Larry Walker, the city’s solar consultant.

It’s not clear what sorts of mechanisms will be funded, but professional assistance in designing rooftop solar arrays and negotiating with vendors will be important, Hoffman said.

In some cases, technical assistants could help create systems in which solar panels are placed both on homes and public property, with the electrical output shared by a group of homeowners, including those whose homes have little exposure to the sun, she said.

“We have a tough time in Madison sometimes because we have these really beautiful tree-lined neighborhoods, and it’s brutal for solar power,” Walker said.

For a free solar energy assessment of property in Madison, call 608-243-0586.

For more information about Madison's solar energy program, go to