The program is simple enough, and everyone at Monday evening’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Energy and Technology agreed it was a great idea. Using a pool of money from the territory’s share of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, the program enables building owners to buy a solar water heating system with no money up front. The loans would be repaid through the owner’s WAPA bill, and the payment would be offset by savings on electricity, which are estimated at about 30 percent of the bill.
The program also included training 26 people through the Career Training and Education Center for jobs as solar water-heater installers.
But while the idea has drawn praise since first being discussed some three years ago, the long process of setting it up has created frustration and economic hardship in the solar industry, and several vendors of sun-powered water heating equipment used Monday’s committee hearing to vent that frustration, pointing the finger at the V.I. Energy Office.
Since the program was announced last year, sales have come to a standstill, said Manny da Matta, a partner in Solar Solutions.
“Since last July, all sales stopped. No one was buying anything,” da Matta said. “We are still waiting. The effect on our business has been devastating. We have had to give up our storefront. We are working out of a garage. With no income, I have had to live off savings. When the savings were gone, I had to do anything I could find in order to pay my bills.”
He also noted that none of the 26 graduates of the CTEC program have been able to make a living yet as installers.
He was joined by vendors Michael DiNapoli and Kelly Gloger; Brian Walden, managing director of Solar Systems, LLC, a company that manufactures solar hot-water systems; and homeowner Tony McDaniel, who last week became the first person to get a system installed under the program.
Walden said he had to furlough his staff because there were no orders.
“That means that several families which only months earlier were celebrating that their breadwinner had steady work have been feeling the effects of the loan program’s delay,” he said.
McDaniel was even more outspoken, saying he had applied for the loan in January and only received the check 10 days ago.
“Surely we can do better than this,” he said.
But Bevan Smith, director of the Energy Office, wasn’t backing down. He argued passionately that his office was creating a new program that required the cooperation of many other departments of government, and each step had to be negotiated, the details worked out.
Further, the Sun Power Loan Program wasn’t the only thing the office was working on. Among other initiatives have been a home weatherization programs for seniors and exploring possible deals with other islands to form an energy grid, lowering the amount of energy the Water and Power Authority will need to generate, thus lowering bills for all the territory.
The realization that McDaniel’s system has been installed, the first in the program’s brief history, and other loans have now been approved with more on the way, brought a sudden, more collegial atmosphere to the room.
“It feels like we’ve rounded a corner,” said Sen. Craig Barshinger, chairman of the committee. “It gives us hope.”
“The reality is it’s actually going,” Gloger said during a break.