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Despite Glitches, Solar Hot Water Loan Program Moving Along


Despite vendor concerns over turnaround time, more than 400 V.I. homes have new solar water-heaters through the V.I. Energy Office’s Sun Power Loan program.

The office recently streamlined payment, so it is a good time to apply, according to Energy Office Director Bevan Smith.

Funded with $3.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the program provides qualifying residents with loans to pay for and assist in the installation of solar water heaters. The no-money down loans are financed through the Economic Development Authority at a 1 percent fixed interest rate over five years and are repaid through borrowers’ WAPA bills.

Solar water heaters should typically lower a home’s energy costs by about 30 percent, so participating homeowners will continue paying about the same or slightly less on their monthly energy bills as before, despite the loan payments. And when the loan is paid off, they will own the systems and reap the full monthly savings.

While a great deal for homeowners and a source of business for solar water-heater vendors, the program has not been without its hiccups, and some customers and vendors have expressed frustration over the length of time it takes for the Energy Office to process applications and cut checks.

Michael DiNapoli, co-owner of Solar Solutions, said both the application and the payment process are way too slow, forcing crews to sit idle awaiting approvals and making it hard for the company to make ends meet while it awaits payment.

"I’ve got 26 applications in the pipeline awaiting approval now," DiNapoli said in a phone interview earlier this week.

Some applications have been awaiting approval since November and some payments have been waiting since October, DiNapoli said.

Speaking with the Source earlier this week, Smith agreed the payment process should be faster, but said the program was on schedule, some sources of delay had been fixed, and DiNapoli’s company was benefitting from the loan program.

"We are not perfect, I admit that," said Smith. Some delays were due to staff shortages and the troubles that come with building a new program from scratch, he said. The loan program involves coordination between the Energy Office, WAPA, the EDA and the federal government, with approvals needed from each, and that leads to delays too, he said.

"That’s not an excuse. I agree we need to go faster. But when there are delays, it is not because we are sitting here twiddling our thumbs," Smith said.

Meanwhile, the federal government has just approved a change that should shave days off the process, according to Smith. Under the original procedure, funds for each application had to be drawn from the U.S. Treasury into a V.I. Department of Finance account, requested through the V.I. electronic accounting system, then deposited in the the EDA’s accounts. At that point, EDA requires five days before loan closing documents can be forwarded to the Energy Office, Smith said.

But under the new process, all the funds should be within the territory in a few weeks, cutting down the number of steps in the process, Smith said.

Enough money for nearly 400 more loans must be expended by April 30, 2012, Smith said. "After April of 2012, that is it, so I would urge residents to take advantage now," he said.

Details of the loan program and downloadable applications are available at the Energy Office website.


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