New Hampshire forges ahead with shared solar options

Source: Nashua Telegraph

Wouldn’t it be cool to stop at your local farm stand and pick up some free-range electricity along with the free-range eggs?

If you’ll forgive the clumsy analogy, that’s the thinking behind the New Hampshire Solar Garden: use the “buy local” ethos to spur more photovoltaic energy in New Hampshire. “The idea is to have more of a community connection within this confusing policy about a regulated utility,” said Andrew Kellar concerning his new company, based in Stratham.

Despite the crunchy- granola name, NH Solar Garden is really a child of legal and regulatory changes, specifically the creation of “group net metering” in New Hampshire.

The new law allows a number of people or businesses to band together (hence “group”) and create a solar-power system, which can get paid for excess electricity returned to the grid (that’s the “net metering” part). Forms of this law exist in several other states, including Massachusetts, and have given solar power a boost by making it financially viable for groups larger than individuals but smaller than big companies or municipalities.

New Hampshire needs more solar power if it’s going to meet legislated alternative-energy goals: We’re supposed to have 25 megawatts of installed capacity about now, and we only have about one-third that.

For years, net metering has allowed New Hampshire individuals to sell electricity back to their utility from small systems, defined as under 15 kilowatts (a home system is usually about 5 kilowatts). The new legal structure allows groups to share the financial return from systems up to 100 kilowatts in peak output.

Kellar has a more specific target: 66 kilowatts exactly.

“That’s the sweet spot,” he said. Not only is it small enough to avoid complicates with three-phase lines and other issues connecting to the grid, it avoids most planning and zoning complications.

“It maximizes value to investor of the rebate,” Kellar said.

This sounds more like banker talk than farmer talk, but Kellar, whose background includes founding the bioiesel fuel company Simply Green, doesn’t mind: “There are a lot of great ideas out there. This allows us to actually get things built.”

Nothing is built yet, however, since NH Solar Garden just launched this month.

It works like this.

An investor agrees to build array of solar panels is built somewhere, such as atop the flat roof of a self-storage facility or an industrial building, or on a bit of little-used field. As little as 7,000 square feet, or a quarter of an acre, can provide 66 kilowatts at peak.

This will cost around $170,000, says Kellar. If the ducks are all in a row, it would be eligible for a $50,000 state Commercial & Industrial (“C-and-I”) rebate, plus some federal take credits and possibly other financing such as from the NH REC market, bringing the cost down close to $100,000, making for a reasonable payback from electricity sales.

Kellar would really like to partner this process with farms, partly because they use lots of electricity, particularly for greenhouses, and partly because they have land that can hold panels, but also because most New Hampshire farms sell directly to people, so they have access to customers who might like to buy some electricity along with their veggies.

That’s important because a group net metering system can only get the rebates if it has enough customers to use the electricity it generates. The idea isn’t to create a new power plant but to shift customers from one source of electricity to a cleaner source. So the finances don’t work unless you have the customers lined up.

The concept of “community” is loose here: Customers don’t have to be connected to the solar panels in any obvious way – they don’t have to share a distribution line, or be within sight of the panels, or even be in the same county. The only requirement is that everybody is customers of the same utility.

This means I can sign up for New Hampshire Solar Gardens and be part of any project anywhere in PSNH’s service area, which covers two-thirds of the state. And that’s what I plan to do.

In return, I will get checks twice a year, probably around $50. That isn’t a ton of money but it’s better than nothing, especially when I don’t have to pay anything up front.

The only hard part is filling out a form that includes a copy of my electric bill, so NH Solar Garden can demonstrate a connection between customers and production.

Incidentally, there’s one big drawback: Folks who have signed up for cheaper electricity from third-party providers like ENH, Resident Power, Fairpoint Energy or others can’t participate.

That eliminates more than a third of residential customers around here.

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