More of Berkshire County has a shot this year to enroll in a state-sponsored solar energy program to help property owners save on electric bills.
Any city or town in Massachusetts that hasn't participated in the Solarize Mass program has until Feb. 20 to submit an application to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. MassCEC, along with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, will review the requests and pick between eight and 10 communities from across the state in mid-March to participate in the next round. Another round to accommodate eight to 10 more is planned for fall.
Since 2011, Pittsfield, Lenox and 19 other municipalities in the state have benefited from Solarize Mass because they were state-recognized "green communities." It's a designation that a city or town no longer needs in order to apply, according to Andy Brydges, MassCEC's senior director of renewable energy generation.
"A lot of towns are environmentally active, but haven't achieved green status," Brydges said. "By opening up to all communities, we can serve that demand for solar energy."
The cost of investing in solar energy hooked many of the homeowners that are in the program now, according to local and state officials. Under Solarize Mass, homeowners have the option of purchasing the photovoltaic system outright from a state-approved installer, leasing the solar panels, or having the company own and maintain the panels, with the electricity generated being sold to the homeowner at a rate lower than the utility.
Under Solarize Mass, MassCEC holds public forums in selected cities and towns to explain how the program works.
Next, the state awards contracts to private solar energy firms who bid on the communities in which to install solar arrays.
At the request of home and business owners, the companies do a site assessment to determine the solar compatibility of the properties and, if so, offer several financing options to pay for the solar projects.
In 2012, 803 private properties across Massachusetts -- including 58 homes in Pittsfield and Lenox combined -- saw the light and took part in Solarize Mass, which wrapped up in early November.
So far, 165 installations statewide have been completed, officials said. Locally, about 30 solar arrays are in place with the rest to be finished this spring, according to Maryland-based Astrum Solar Inc., the chosen installer for Pittsfield and Lenox.
Once all the solar arrays have been mounted on roofs or on the ground, they will generate 5,100 kilowatt-hours of electricity statewide. About 9 percent of that will be derived from solar arrays in Pittsfield and Lenox, according to MassCEC.
Based on the numbers, local officials and private installers urge more communities to participate.
"Solarize Mass has been able to tap into people who want to do something concrete about their energy use," said Pittsfield's Solarize Mass coordinator, Nate Joyner.
"Other towns are looking to replicate the success we had last year," added Michelle Waldgier, Astrum's vice president of marketing. "We often get asked about how Pittsfield and Lenox were able to leverage the program to expand their amount of residential solar so rapidly."
Aside from saving money, Solarize Mass is a step toward reducing dependency on electricity generated by fossil fuels.
"It's another awakening to sustainable living," said Adele Gravits, Lenox's sustainable energy coordinator.
Request for proposal forms can be found at solarizemass.com.