The State of Solar Power in New Hampshire
Invoking the Sun God - in the ancient mythology of every culture on the planet, there are sagas of mankind’s attempts to catch and ensnare mighty Sol, the sun god. In 21st-century New Hampshire, harnessing the power of the sun is no myth.
"If you look back at archaeological sites from the dawn of recorded history, you will find architectural structures that were built to be passive solar [devices] for heating and cooling purposes. People were able to harness the sun’s energy to make their lives more comfortable,” says John Lawrence, a solar design specialist for ReVision Energy. “This is not a new concept. It’s been going on for thousands of years and people have just figured it out. It’s not that different from what the Hopi Indians were doing.”
The idea is pretty basic. Think of the sun, that star at the center of our solar system and the most important and ultimate source of energy for life on Earth, as a nuclear power plant in the sky. It provides ample and endless energy to fulfill all the world’s power needs many times over and on an annual basis. As a bonus, it doesn’t give off carbon dioxide, air pollutants or have other detrimental effects on our environment.
Even better, it’s free.
How it Works – The Basics
Though the concept may be simple, the practice of collecting solar energy to convert into electricity can get a tad technical.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, or solar cells, change sunlight directly into electricity. Arrangements of many solar cells in PV panels and arrangements of multiple PV panels in arrays can produce electricity for an entire house. Some PV power plants have large arrays that cover many acres to produce electricity for thousands of homes and businesses, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
The amount of daily sunlight received varies from season to season, day to day, and is affected by weather conditions, but the energy collected is stored and may be used at any time. Through a system called net metering, when a PV system is tied into the power grid any excess energy is fed back into the grid for future use. For added value, there is credit given for the excess energy produced, and that is reflected on monthly electric bills.
These days, many people believe that King Coal and other fossil fuels are dead. Long live the sun. The future of solar power is brighter than ever — or so say its proponents.
But here in New Hampshire, where embracing change can be as hard as our granite, have we seen the light?
“I really think that we are at that tipping point,” said architect and author Bill Maclay, who is a leading voice on net-zero building, in a talk at Proctor Academy in Andover, where his firm designed a new 350-seat, solar-array, net-zero campus dining hall. “We are in the renewable era today and we have woken up to that transition point. The way forward is huge and it’s about efficiency, so renewables can take us forward and fossil fuels will disappear.”
Homeowners Tom and Nancy Southworth worked with their son Ben Southworth and Garland Mill Timberframes of Lancaster to create their highly efficient home, pictured here and in the opening photo above.
Currently, there are three different options for solar power that are operational in the state. In addition to the rooftop or small ground-mount panels installed on an individual home or business, community solar and utility-scale solar are online.
“Community solar is just starting up. You build a solar array somewhere that’s too big for one person’s house, so several houses or a whole neighborhood buys it together and they all share the benefits of the power. That’s one step up from rooftop solar,” explains David Brooks, a science and technology reporter for the Concord Monitor known to his fans as the Granite Geek. “Then you get the utility scale. That’s a solar farm that’s so big that no one customer or neighborhood is going to use it all. It is built to sell the power. It’s like a utility. That’s when you’re talking about 10 megawatts or more.”
For perspective, one megawatt (MW) equals 1,000 kilowatts (kW). As Brooks explains, rooftop solar on a home produces about 5 kW and the recently completed solar array at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, which is a ReVision Energy project, is a 145 kW system. At this time, the biggest solar array in the Granite State is owned and operated by the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative and it supplies in part 84,000 customers in 115 communities across the state.
The list of municipalities now converting to solar to power public buildings continues to expand across the state. Last year the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter became the Gate City’s first nonprofit to go solar.
“The line I’ve used is that solar panels are like wild turkeys,” says Brooks. “It used to be that when you saw one you’d stop the car and take a picture. Now if you see one, you point and say, ‘Oh, look. Cool.’ In another five years you won’t even slow down.” Brooks is on a quest to discover the oldest solar panels in the state that are still functional and hooked into the grid (see sidebar). Individual homeowners are also increasingly hip to the idea this is the greatest thing under the sun.
“We see this a lot with our custom home building,” says Shane Carter, the owner of the Deerfield-based Ridgeview Construction, which is recognized as one of the state’s most progressive building companies and is a repeat winner of the prestigious Cornerstone Awards presented by the New Hampshire Home Builders Association. They’ve been building sustainable homes and net-zero ready homes since 2007. At the moment, they’re working on a net-zero, off-grid solar home, something that’s becoming increasingly popular with homeowners, he adds. In addition, they’re also working on a net-zero home with a ground-mount PV system that’s already in place. It’s not just single homes getting in on solar power — Carter says he’s working with a land owner to develop a small community of houses in the Seacoast Region, which will be net-zero ready or net-zero completed with solar on the roofs.
A major driving factor in any rising tech is economics and the cost of the panels, devices and installation has dropped exponentially over the past 10 years while electric rates continue to climb and are unpredictable. Opening one’s monthly electric bill, particularly during a summer heat wave or during a winter’s Polar Express, can cause sticker shock.
For many people, says Carter, the most important reason for going energy-independent is the ability to produce their own clean energy. Many of his clients, he adds, start there and only then begin to look at the financial impact — including tax credits and state and federal incentives.
“There is always a cost component where the homeowner is saving money long-term and hedging inflation from a rise in electricity costs,” says Carter. “They see a seven or eight-year payback on a 30-plus year asset and then it starts to make financial sense.”
Now 11 years into the business, Carter says that these types of homes are much more prevalent today. “Before, there were a few forward-thinking people who were on board with this, but it was a small minority,” he says. “It’s like a conscious awakening. That technology has arrived. It’s great and I’m really happy to see it.”
The half-acre solar array installed in January at the MacDowell Colony for artists in Peterborough will supply 74 percent of their electrical needs for the years ahead.
Lawrence says that the monetary component is raised in every conversation ReVision has with its customers across the board, whether residential, industrial, commercial, a school district or nonprofts.
“Fifteen years ago, the people who were enamored with this technology were the hippies and the tree huggers and the environmentalists,” Lawrence says. So what changed? He explains that the baby boomer generation is now entering the empty nest phase of life, when they are retired or about to retire, and they’re starting to look at the economics of solar power. “They’re saying, ‘Whoa. Wait a minute. I could get four or five times the value on my investment by putting solar on my roof than I could ever get out of a money market account or something like that,” he says.
The Politics – State and Federal Incentives Are On the Decline
Though economics is enlightening the issue, politics is clouding it.
In October, the New Hampshire House’s Science, Technology and Energy Committee voted to roll back the state’s renewable energy standards and to cut funding for energy-efficiency provided by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a free-market program to reduce carbon pollution through the trading of CO2 allowances.
Monetary rebates for going solar on homes and businesses were once available from the state, but the popular program hit a big snag in July. By that point, all of the funding was used up, says Amanda Noonan, the communications officer with the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
The funds available fluctuate from year to year, she adds, and there were more demands for funds than they had money.
Money for the rebate program comes from renewable energy funds, which is in turn funded by alternative compliance payments. These are assessed on electrical suppliers, who must get a certain percentage of their energy from renewable fuels and resources. If they can’t get it from a generating facility that falls into that category, then they must fulfill their obligation with a payment to the renewable energy fund. This is why the amount can change from year to year.
The residential renewable rebate program for 2018, with a new incentive level set and modifications to the terms and conditions, was reopened January 2, but applications were closed February 1. Noonan says that the “very limited” amount of funding was to be awarded through a lottery process.
The commercial and industrial program is closed until further notice.
Moreover, state tax credits that were once available have ended and the consensus is there are no plans in Concord to bring them back at this time. Washington, DC, still gives you a break. For now.
When it comes to federal incentives, right now you can receive a 30 percent credit based on the cost of your system, says Sean McKay of Bigelow & Company certified public accountants, which has offices in Manchester and Portsmouth. To figure the math, add up the purchase and installation costs, take 30 percent of the total and you have the amount you can credit against your income taxes. If the credit amount is higher than the taxes you paid, you can carry the excess into future years indefinitely. If that sounds good, you better get in on it. McKay adds that in 2020 the percentage will drop to 26, in 2021 it will fall to 22 and by 2022 it will be just 10 percent. However, that 10 percent is for commercial customers only — no credit will be offered to residential customers.
Property Values – Questions Remain
As New Hampshire residents continue to warm to solar-powered homes, the economic benefits will become more apparent. But right now, there are still plenty of questions about how this affects property values, and buyers, sellers, Realtors, appraisers, lending institutions and insurance agents are among those asking.
“The question in real estate is valuation, and valuation only comes into play when all of the players understand the value,” says Naida Kaen, of Mariner Realty in Durham. Realtors already have the ability within their listing system (the multiple listings service or MLS) to specify different designations of energy efficiency — including solar — that people can specifically search for. However, the process of educating real estate agents about that feature is just getting underway.
“If they don’t have the awareness when they’re contacted by a consumer who has and wants to sell a property with those features, they’re not going to be able to ask the right questions to even check off the boxes that are now in the field,” says Kaen.
A ReVision Energy project underway. Photo courtesy of ReVision Energy
Powering with solar may be relatively new to New Hampshire homeowners, yet Kaen has a long-term view. As a former state representative, she served on the House’s science, Technology and Energy Committee for 17 years. She’s also retired from the faculty at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business.
“There are a lot of players in this, all of whom need to be educated,” she says. “Some of this is happening. There is a group of appraisers now who have been trained. The seller’s agent also needs to alert the buyer’s agent that they need to contact a financial institution that will choose from a pool of appraisers who understand that valuation.”
At one time, the presence of solar panels or a ground-mount system may have been a turn-off to potential home buyers, who considered them aesthetically unappealing. But as home heating and cooling costs continue to rise and extended power outages seem to be more frequent, that mindset is changing even though a solar-powered home may initially come with a higher price tag.
Realtors are seeing more buyers who already understand the value of solar — such as the energy payments you don’t have to make and the independence that’s handy during outages — but, says Kaen, current New Hampshire residents are a bit behind those from our neighbor to the south. People from Massachusetts looking to relocate here tend to be more schooled in the benefits of solar and be more appreciative and desirous of homes that feature it, she adds.
Even so, Realtors say that it’s tough to talk about a trend because as of yet there hasn’t been a significant number of resales to come on the market. As Kaen notes, the people who install solar on their homes are the type to take the long view and plan to stay there and enjoy it.
Good for Jobs and Business
Not only is the burgeoning solar industry attractive to people looking to relocate to the state, it’s combating the problem of the so-called brain drain.
“Having the opportunity for new jobs that pay a living wage and have a positive outcome for helping to secure our economy is a good thing,” says Lawrence. “I think people would be hard pressed to argue with that. The solar industry is creating and providing jobs that keep young, talented people here in this state. There are probably a couple of thousand jobs that are here and tied into this industry,” he adds.
Consider what economists call the multiplier effect.
“Let’s say you have 50 employees living in your state who get married and raise families and you’re supplying them with an income that gets recycled back into the local economy. If you’re supporting indigenous economies here to create locally sourced energy— in this example through solar — that money stays and cycles through this economy. That money helps with the tax base at the local level and with a whole number of things,” Lawrence says.
Solar power is also good for business. The Target store in Greenland is now solar-efficient and is the first of its kind in New Hampshire.
“We’ve long been committed to making Target’s business more sustainable. We know it leads to a stronger, cleaner supply chain and operations, and it creates a healthier environment for our team members and guests,” says Lee Henderson, part of the communications team at corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. This location is a part of a long-term goal to have 500 buildings with rooftop solar by 2020. According to Henderson, stores that already use solar generate between 15-30 percent of their energy from solar.
The benefits reach across the business spectrum.
It’s not just about the money saved by harvesting solar power on site, says Lawrence. The optics of being sustainable are good for business as well. “If you have some messaging that says, ‘we’re sustainable,’ there are consumers out there who want to stay at a bed and breakfast or go to a brewery or whatever that is environmentally responsible,” adds Lawrence. “It’s actually a business driver. People tell me that they use the concept of being green to help promote their own businesses. It brings business to them.”
Additionally, for many protecting the environment and being a good steward of the Earth for future generates resonates as just the right thing to do. To them, that’s the New Hampshire way.
When advantageous economics, slowing the brain drain and sustainability are in the solar power and renewable energy mix for New Hampshire, so much the better.
“I think we’re on our way. I was very discouraged many times through the years I sat on that committee in the House, but I’m now feeling very confident,” says Kaen. “We’re getting there.”
In the brave new world of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, politics at every level come into play. Just as the March issue went to press, President Donald Trump imposed a 30-percent tariff on the import of solar cell and module imports, which he said would help American manufacturers. But many experts have a different take, so we checked in with our sources to shed light on the change.
“This is a significant blow to the industry,” says Dan Weeks, ReVision Energy’s director of marketing development. “The estimated resulting job losses are 23,000, and the positive impacts on solar manufacturing are negligible. We have reason to believe there will be virtually no added manufacturing jobs. In the name of protecting American jobs, unfortunately the President’s decision is likely to cost tens of thousands of American jobs in a fast-growing sector that for environmental reasons needs to continue expanding rapidly.”
He adds that “some of the projects that I work on, which are some of the most important ones for towns and cities, and for nonprofits that can least afford to pay high electric rates while providing important social services, have very thin margins. Those projects will be significantly more difficult as a result of the tariff. This is a very unfortunate decision.”
Weeks says that the transition to clean energy must continue, and that for months ReVision has been working in anticipation of the tariff. “We’ve already seen price pressures,” he says. “But by working with other leading solar companies across the country to pool our purchasing power, we have been able to build up a supply of reasonably priced solar panels to make sure the work continues.”
But, he says, the cost has to go somewhere. “When the price of modules goes up 30 percent, and modules are typically one quarter to a third of the total project price, estimates are that this will increase project costs by 8.3 percent. Much of the billions of dollars in investment is in large utility-scale solar projects that are currently in development. These margins are very thin. A price shock like this will inevitably either delay or cancel some share of those billion-dollar projects.”
But the picture isn’t all dark.
“Clean energy is the future. We are in the midst of a major transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and that will continue, and for environmental reasons, it has to continue. Companies like ours will continue to find ways to make solar work for all comers in spite of the negative impacts of the tariffs,” he says.
Something Old Under the Sun
Tim Meeh of Canterbury stands by one of the state’s oldest solar arrays, installed back in 1993 and still working fine. Photo by Geoff Forrester
David Brooks, also known as the Granite Geek, happens to be an authority on solar power, and he’s been scouring the state for the oldest, still-operational solar panel. But his project hasn’t taken on the magnitude akin to a personal quest for the Holy Grail.
“No, not at all. It’s an amusing sideline,” says Brooks, the author of a recent Concord Monitor column featuring Tim Meeh, who owns North Family Farm in Canterbury, where he discovered that his barn with 18 solar panels dating to 1993 might be the earliest grid-tied system.
“As I tried to get across in my column, the reason I’m interested in this is because solar panels are the new high-tech thing, and I want to turn that on its head and look for the oldest ones I can find. I’m searching for that old, decrepit one that’s still trickling electrons somewhere,” explains Brooks, an award-winning science and technology writer and blogger and a frequent guest on New Hampshire Public Radio.
It must be somewhere, perhaps in the deep forests of the Great North Woods Region or on the shoreline of a small pond near Peterborough.
“I have no idea where it could be,” he says, adding that power grid-tied systems weren’t in use before the early 1990s. “They could be anywhere. I guess they would be on a hunting cabin or a winter ski cabin, and some people think these may go back to the ’70s. I have some tips and some leads, but I just haven’t chased them down yet.”
Nor has he traveled the state far and wide. It’s not as though there is a network to tie into (pardon the pun) for this sort of thing.
“Off-grid is another matter,” he says. “When I came to New Hampshire in 1987, renewable energy was something for the older eco-hippie folks. They were the ones who were building their houses out of straw bales and stuff like that and living off grid. It was really a minor thing. It was very, very niche-y.”
That goes back to those cabins in the woods, when it cost $5,000 to bring in electricity, so you did it yourself. The owners of those cabins were some of the earliest to try solar panels, so the question is, are there any of those still puttering away somewhere in the forest?
“I’m assuming the people I’ll find who still have a panel, if I do find somebody who still has a panel running from the ’70s or ’80s, will be the children of the old hippies. I’m assuming these [panels] will be the leftover from the pre-generation, this niche generation. But who knows? I’d love to hear from anyone who has a lead.” If you’ve got a tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Lynne Snierson is a freelance writer who covered the National Football League and thoroughbred horse racing during her long and award-winning career as a staff sportswriter for three major market daily newspapers and one national publication. The Laconia native, who loves animals and is passionate about their welfare, lives in Salem with her retired champion Shetland Sheepdog, Mavis. Snierson, in addition to occasionally contributing feature stories, is New Hampshire Magazine's regular "Seniority" writer. For more of her work, see her recent piece on Manchester's mounted police, her feature story on the Granite State's champion animals or the story she wrote for our inaugural Pet Issue.
About the Photographer
John Hession is also a frequent photographic contributor to our sister publication New Hampshire Home magazine. He freelances throughout New England, specializing in architectural, commercial and portrait photography. When not photographing, he enjoys horseback riding with his wife Valerie, organic farming and promoting sustainable green building. You can see more of his photos in the recent feature story on artist Jim Lambert. Visit his website for more information.