Solarize SOMA Brings Solar Flare to Local Rooftops

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When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I thought in the future androids would clean our homes, we would all talk on videophones and the world would run on solar power. Thanks to Skype and Solarize SOMA here in Maplewood and South Orange, all that stands between me and my 1976 version of the future is a robot butler.

More than just purple lawn signs, Solarize SOMA ( is both an opportunity to get a discount on rooftop solar panels, and a movement to raise awareness about the potential of solar power. Local homeowners have until July 15 to enroll for a free assessment of their home’s solar power viability by the designated provider, Astrum Solar. Astrum Solar will come to your house to check the sunlight and see if your roof is sturdy enough to justify installing the panels.

Solarize SOMA

If it is, anyone who goes for solar power through Solarize SOMA will benefit from a discount on the installation, whether they purchase or lease the panels. (Roof repairs must be done before the solar panels are installed.)

“The pricing is fantastic,” ensures Esther Siskind, a leader in the Solarize SOMA effort and also a director of programs at SolarOne, a NYC-based environmental education nonprofit. To access the discount, residents need to sign up for the assessment by July 15. Astrum Solar is offering what amounts to about a 20% discount on the installation of the panels.

The typical price is about $4/watt, according to Cary Bohlin at Astrum Solar. With the Solarize SOMA discount, homeowners will get the panels at $3.15/watt. As an example, he estimated that the average installation is 30 panels at $1,000/panel, or $30,000; with the Solarize SOMA discount, the installation will be $23,625.

About 280 homeowners across Maplewood and South Orange have already signed up for an assessment and 16 have contracted to have panels installed.

If homeowners choose to purchase the solar panels, typical investment payback periods are in the range of 5-7 years, said Siskind, but could be more or less depending on the number of panels used and the electricity used in the home. A second option is to lease the panels for no money down. As a “host site” anyone with solar panels on their roof will receive a reduced electric bill.

The all-volunteer effort is leveraging the power of a coalition to both drive down pricing, and hopefully to encourage more people to consider solar power.

“We want to motivate our community to go solar,” said Siskind. Solarize SOMA has the support of the environmental committees of both towns.  “The more who go this route, the cheaper it will be for everyone—even those that signed on first.”

We all know from elementary science lessons that solar panels can harness the sun’s power to use as a renewable, clean source of energy. What budget-bludgeoned homeowners might not know is that solar power can lower your monthly electric bills. Nothing stirs environmental awareness like fiscal incentive.

Surprisingly, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) ranks New Jersey as the fifth leading state for solar capacity. According to SEIA, the state got 100% of its new electrical capacity from solar in 2013. While states like Arizona and solar leader California have more vast expanses of barren sun-scorched earth, New Jersey has millions of highly educated residents motivated to minimize both their carbon footprint and their power bills.

Plus, thanks to several once-in-a-century storms, we’ve also lost quite a few of those shade trees that had made Maplewood and South Orange too shady for solar power. (Are those fierce storms the result of the very same climate change motivating people to minimize a reliance on fossil fuels? That’s an interesting question best saved for another story.)

On a sunny day, rooftop panels could feasibly provide more power than you need to juice your own home. When this happens, the excess is given back to the grid, your electric meter spins backward in a process called net metering, and your electric bill is lowered. Current panel technology can’t store the power but Siskind said that technology is advancing and developing storage options for solar panels, as well as panels that can be effective despite tree cover. She had no information on robot butlers.

While the tangible benefits of Solarize SOMA might be financial, the initiative was inspired by a real effort to do something about climate change. Siskind had been involved in similar programs for New York City, and knew the people in Maplewood and South Orange would be good candidates to consider alternatives to traditional power.

“I’m a Maplewood resident, and I knew our towns are the perfect communities for this sort of thing,” she said.

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