WOEC promotes use of online marketplace for solar panels

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Environmental Commission will soon start promoting an online marketplace in which residents can obtain free cost estimates on solar panels from approximately 450 different contractors.

WOEC Chairman Mike Brick said his group will soon start working with EnergySage to create a website specifically for West Orange, which the commission will advertise on the township’s website and talk up around town. Brick said residents should be able to use the service by the summer, once he gets the blessing of Mayor Robert Parisi and other members of the administration. No official approval is required since West Orange will not have to pay anything to offer EnergySage, he said.

And Brick is certainly eager to connect residents with the marketplace, telling the West Orange Chronicle that he does not see any drawbacks to it.

“We couldn’t see any reason not to do it — it’s a free service and the town doesn’t have any liability,” Brick said in a May 5 phone interview. “I like what’s on the website.”

Using the EnergySage marketplace is fairly straightforward. Those interested in obtaining solar panels first create an account by uploading their electricity bill and answering a few questions, such as the type of financing preferred. They do not have to include their contact information, which Brick said he appreciates because residents will not be hounded by calls from vendors. But they still can communicate with contractors through EnergySage’s online message system.

Once an account is completed, vendors — which have all been vetted by EnergySage — can review the information and offer a price estimate. These estimates are presented to customers in a side-by-side format so they can easily compare metrics, including financing options, payback period and warranties offered. Users also have the option of working with an EnergySage adviser, who can guide them through the process.

After studying the offers, customers can accept which is best for them through the website. From there, they can start working with whichever contractor they chose. Of course, EnergySage users do not have to commit to anyone if they decide solar panels are not right for them.

According to John Gingrich, EnergySage’s senior vice president of strategic partnerships, the company was created as an independent marketplace specially designed to make pursuing solar energy as simple as possible. And many people have taken advantage of it. Gingrich said 50,000 to 60,000 people create accounts every year, with 20 percent of those users going on to actually obtain solar panels. As a result of being able to compare estimates, he added that the typical customer saves at least 20 percent on installation costs through EnergySage.

Individual customers are not the only ones to have discovered EnergySage. Gingrich told the Chronicle the company has formed partnerships with a number of municipalities and environmental groups, including Sustainable Jersey. In fact, Sustainable Jersey is nearing the end of its seven-month “Solar Challenge” in which seven New Jersey towns competed to get as many residents as possible to obtain solar panels through the EnergySage marketplace. According to statistics posted on each town’s EnergySage website, the initiative has so far resulted in seven contracts being signed and hundreds of people registering accounts.

Verona is one of the participating communities. According to Sustainable Verona Chairman Steve Neale, the challenge has generated a lot of interest in solar energy within the community, resulting in two residents purchasing panels and 108 creating accounts. He said the township hopes even more will pursue solar energy moving forward since it plans to continue promoting EnergySage after the challenge ends.

“It’s worked out pretty well,” Neale told the Chronicle in a May 8 phone interview. “We do really like the EnergySage platform.”

Neale said he is happy to hear that West Orange is interested in advertising EnergySage to residents because solar power greatly benefits the environment. Using the sun’s energy to generate electricity prevents the burning of fossil fuels, which in turn lowers the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. According to an Environmental Protection Agency formula, the average 5kW solar panel system leads to a 4.9 metric ton reduction in carbon emissions per year.

At the same time, Neale said, using solar power allows people to save money on electricity. Though it might take a while for people to get their money back after buying panels — Gingrich said five or six years for the average residence — EnergySage calculates that New Jersey residents with a 5kW solar system could reap at least $24,622 in savings over a 20-year period. Panel owners are also eligible for incentives and rebates that could net them additional funds. New Jersey even allows owners to get solar renewable energy certificates, which they can sell to utilities so those companies can use that solar energy in meeting their requirements.

On top of that, Gingrich said solar panels are an asset to property owners. A study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that homes that use solar energy sell 20 percent faster and for 17 percent more money than houses that do not. A report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also states that each watt of solar power generated by a home adds $3 to its value outside of California.

Yet before obtaining these benefits, Neale cautioned that it is important people find the right financing for their needs. He explained that residents will typically find opportunities to purchase panels outright, obtain a loan for their purchase or lease them. He recommended either buying the panels or getting a loan to buy them, which would give the purchaser all of the benefits attached with owning a solar system. Leasing is not a bad option, he said, but he stressed that people considering it should research what to expect before committing to anything.

“Residents should probably be more aware of those contracts and take into account that they are not going to own the system,” Neale said. “The benefits might be a little different.”

Neale also explained this to the West Orange Township Council at its April 25 meeting while making a presentation on Verona’s experience with EnergySage. And the council members seemed interested in the marketplace, especially Councilwoman Susan McCartney. She was one of the WOEC members who first raised the idea of partnering with EnergySage, and told the Chronicle she thinks the West Orange community would be interested in using the service since so many residents have solar panels already. She said promoting such a resource would likely earn the township points toward its Sustainable Jersey rating, as well.

Above all, McCartney said the commission’s promotion of EnergySage gives residents the chance to make a positive impact on the environment.

“I find residents are extremely interested in the environment,” McCartney said in a May 5 phone interview. “You do want to make a difference. Sometimes people don’t know how to make a difference. (The WOEC) is giving them every opportunity to make a difference.”

To learn more about EnergySage or use the marketplace now, visit https://www.energysage.com/.