Eaton charges up local solar firm

ADDISON COUNTY — A hometown boy is back in town and looking to make big headway this year in solar technology across Addison County.

Chris Eaton is a Middlebury Union High School graduate and a 1999 Middlebury College alumnus. He co-founded the local company Salamander Construction in 2004, and two years later followed his future wife down to Massachusetts, where he started another construction company, called Ducksholm Builders in Nantucket.

In 2009, he began exploring solar opportunities in Vermont for a group of Massachusetts investors. After two years eyeing the industry, Eaton moved back to Addison County to start his own solar company: Backspin Renewables.

“Instead of just having an interest and a passion (for solar) I want to try to have a career,” he said.

Springing to life in mid-June, Backspin Renewables is partnering exclusively with the AllSun Tracker division of Williston-based AllEarth Renewables. In the future, Eaton might branch out to other solar products, but for now he’s the sole local dealer for AllSun’s 4.2- and 5.5-kilowatt trackers. Backspin has sales rights to the region from Vergennes and Bristol south through Rutland and all the way to Manchester.

Eaton said customers could save a huge amount on electric bills by using AllSun solar panels.

“What I’m most excited about is (that solar) makes economic sense. It’s been starting to for years and now it really does,” he said. “I can go to business owners I know in town and say, ‘I feel comfortable selling you this not because I want to sell something, but it’ll actually make you money over time and hedge you against future utility price increases.’”

A range of federal and state incentives, rebates and tax credits are available for solar customers today. This year’s energy bill (previously named H. 56) introduced a standard credit for power produced by a solar user at 20 cents. That means Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service customers, who pay roughly 14 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), reap an approximate 6-cent credit called for every kWh used. For every kWh produced, but not used, the customer gets a full 20-cent credit.

A federal 30 percent tax incentive also exists, as does a 10 percent Vermont rebate. Businesses are also eligible to depreciate their investment in solar technology at an accelerated tax rate.

When the costs of a 4.2-kW tracker ($29,400 retail, including installation, before rebates and credits) and the aforementioned benefits are weighed against a 5 percent annual utility rate increase, AllSun estimates that the 25-year savings — the length of the panel’s warranty — will average $31,240 for a home and $39,220 for a business.

The reason that the business savings are so much higher is due to the tax depreciation.

The way this depreciation works, said Eaton, is when a business installs a tracker, it may depreciate 100 percent of that value in the first year. That means that the business would have an almost $30,000 write off on its taxes; if a business has a 30 percent tax rate, that translates to a savings approaching $9,000.

But not all agree that utility rates will rise at the annual rate of 5 percent that AllSun factored into the equation.

“We don’t typically predict rates going forward, given that there are innumerable variables, but those projections sound quite high for Vermont in the years ahead,” said CVPS Spokesman Steve Costello. “Overall, our rates have risen about 21 percent since 1999 (or 0.57 percent a year). Based on the latest federal data available, the Consumer Price Index for Energy has increased about 81 percent in that time ... CVPS and GMP have among the lowest rates in New England.”

According Andrew Savage, director of public affairs for AllEarth, “The 5 percent increase is an estimate that the company produced based on the U.S. Department of Energy tracking Vermont energy sources over time, back to the 1940’s. It’s an estimate to provide some sort of financial modeling.”

Eaton said he sees evidence to support the claim.

“When I first looked at AllSun’s spreadsheet, (I saw that) they used a 5 percent escalator, which I thought was pretty aggressive,” said Eaton. “But (that’s changed) as I’ve dug into people’s past utility bills. One business was paying 11 cents in 2009 and now they’re paying 13.”

That’s a more than 18 percent increase over two years.

Meanwhile, Vermont’s Public Service Board estimates that the average Vermont household uses approximately 9,000 kWh annually, but AllSun’s 4.2-kW tracker produces 5,880 kWh, said Eaton. So how does a family account for the remaining 3,120 kWh needed to power their home?

Financially speaking, this is where the new utility credit comes in. A CVPS customer spends almost 14 cents per kWh for the highest residential rate of power, which is used for solar customers because they also receive a 20-cent credit per kWh produced under the new state energy law.

If the customer produces 5,880 kWh in a year, then he or she will have accrued $1,176 in credits at 20 cents per kWh. If the customer uses 9,000 kWh in a year, then he or she will owe $1,251 without the credits factored in. Once the $1,176 in credits is brought into the equation, then the customer could pay a mere $75 a year in power bills for kWh used.

“So really you’re using the grid as your bank,” said Eaton. “You accrue credits (by producing solar energy and pumping it into the grid) and then you can pull them out.”

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com.


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