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Three Things to Know About Solar Power

Solar panels atop the Yarmouth Dennis Waste Water Treatment facility.

Solar power installations in Massachusetts have increased 80-fold in just six years, outstripping state officials' goals and surprising many.

If you've ever thought solar power was only for the tropics or desserts, think again. In May of this year, Governor Deval Patrick announced that solar installations in Massachusetts - photovoltaic, the electricity-generating panels, not solar hot water - had already reached the goal his administration set for 2017. He then proceeded to raise the goal to 1,600 MW installed by 2020.

Towns, businesses and residents on the Cape and Islands are no small part of the solar surge. Barnstable and Dukes counties are both partner communities in the Department of Energy's Million Solar Roofs.  Initiative. Falmouth has more solar installations than any other town in Massachusetts, except Boston. And Wellfleet is in the newest class of Solarize Massachusetts participants.

But nothing is perfect, not even solar power. Here are three things to consider if you're thinking about going solar:

1. Thin Film vs. Traditional. Thin-film solar panels are popping up on everything from back-packs to roofing shingles. These flexible panels definitely have sex appeal going for them, but Megan Amsler, executive director of Cape and Islands Self-Reliance, warns these panels are typically only a third as efficient as traditional solar panels (and most of those only turn 15% of the sunlight they absorb into electricity). Thin-film solar panels also include more toxic chemicals, and more rare earth minerals, whose mining can be environmentally damaging and dangerous.

2. Location, location, location. An unshaded, south-facing roof is probably the best place to install solar panels. It's already a flat surface, and doing nothing positive for the environment. If no such roof is available, Amsler says constructing an awning over a parking lot or deck is another good option. Finding space for larger arrays poses a challenge, especially here in New England, where much of our undeveloped land is forested. Trees provide important habitat, improve local air and water quality, and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As a result, says Michael Stone, Policy and Regulations Manager for My Generation Solar, clearing forest to install solar panels is discouraged by most siting guidelines.

3. Seeing $$$s. The up-front cost of solar has been a major deterrent for many would-be adopters. The good news is, as the market expands, prices are falling fast. There's also the option of third-party ownership, in which a company places panels on your home or property and you pay them for the energy you use. Amsler cautions against jumping at such deals, though, because they may cost more in the long run. There are also a variety of financial incentive programs available, but Stone warns many are being cut back. Amsler says a professional advisor can be very helpful for those trying to make sense of the complicated financial landscape.

Have you gone solar? Tell us your success story, or share your woes in the comments.

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