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Monday, June 3, 2013

All the solar power in NH is less than one array on a Mass. landfill

David Brooks

NOTE: The link for the PUC has been fixed

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NOTE: The link for the PUC has been fixed

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If you want a single-sentence analysis of solar power in New Hampshire, try this one: The landfill in Canton, Mass., has more of it than all of New Hampshire combined.

This is a startling fact because New Hampshire has some pretty good-sized photovoltaic systems: 167 kilowatts at the North Conway Water Precinct, 140 kilowatts at Favorite Foods in Somersworth, 127 kilowatts at Colby-Sawyer College, 99 kilowatts at Wire Belt in Londonderry.

Since a large house system is about 5 kilowatts, these arrays are nothing to sneeze at.

But they pale next to some Massachusetts solar power systems built by utilities and private developers, including the array at the Canton landfill which can produce 5,600 kilowatts, or 5.6 megawatts.

By contrast, the combined output of every solar panel on homes and business and schools throughout all of New Hampshire is about 4.5 megawatts, estimates the Sustainable Energy Division of the state Public Utilities Commission.

Yet by some measures, New Hampshire isn’t doing too badly.

Since 2009, the Sustainable Energy Division has provided rebates for more than 1,600 renewable energy systems, including solar power, solar hot water and biomass, increasing the energy production total nine-fold.

(To find out more, and see whether you might be eligible for a grant or rebate, check out www.puc.nh.gov/Sustainable%20Energy/RenewableEnergyRebates.html.)

“I’ve been doing this for years, and to me it feels like we’ve come a long way, made a lot of progress. We’re definitely seeing increasing demand for solar electric, solar thermal, both commercial and residential, and thermal renewable energy is starting to take off,” said Jack Ruderman, director of the Sustainable Energy Division. “Large-scale solar development: that’s the one area where we’re lagging.”

Lagging, indeed.

By the way, I learned all this while updating my online map of alternative energy production in Northern New England, accessible from the GraniteGeek blog (www.granitegeek.org). Feel free to check it out and let me know of any errors.

The map shows that New Hampshire has a lot more large-scale wind power than Massachusetts, although much less than Maine, which has pushed heavily for it. Massachusetts will surpass us when Cape Wind finally gets going, because offshore wind power will be America’s real wind source.

Back to photovoltaics, meaning sunlight turned into electricity. Sunlight turned into hot water (like the array I have on my roof) is a different matter than has failed to take off even though it’s more efficient from a pure physics standpoint.

Ruderman thinks the problem with solar thermal, as it’s called, is that rooftop plumbing is harder than rooftop wiring.

We’re lagging in photovoltaics not because Massachusetts is sunnier. There are several hundred solar panel systems generating electricity quite happily around New Hampshire, usually on rooftops, thanks to four years of state and federal supports.

We’re lagging behind Massachusetts because there’s a lot more government assistance in the Bay State – changes in rules, increased advice and know-how for developers, and plenty of taxpayer or utility-customer dollars given out as encouragement to build large solar power systems.

Massachusetts has gotten pretty serious about solar power. In early May it announced that it has 250 megawatts of installed solar electricity production – a staggering 80-fold statewide increase in five years – and had upped its solar power target from 400 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts by 2020.

All that has cost many millions of dollars in government support but has produced just a few percent of the state’s electricity needs.

Some would argue that New Hampshire’s solar power lag is actually a good thing that reflects our intelligent parsimony. The fact that solar power needs to be subsidized, they claim, shows that it isn’t real in the same sense as, say, a natural gas power plant.

I disagree. What solar subsidies demonstrate is that in the economic world built since the start of the Industrial Revolution, electricity produced when sunlight knocks electrons off layers of crystal costs more than electricity produced by pulling million-year-old organic byproducts out of the earth and igniting them to burn water and spin turbines, counting capital and short-term operating expenses.

It also demonstrates that solar power doesn’t fit easily into the world we have built around always-available power sources. Hence the need for government research and development into energy storage and transmission systems, grids and monitors.

Lots more dollars are needed, which is painful. Yet the long-term benefits of using sunlight as a free fuel for electricity are so huge that only a penny-wise/pound-foolish outlook would keep us away.

Photovoltaics aren’t going to power the world in my lifetime, although I note that 100 percent of new power capacity added to the U.S. grid in March of this year was solar.

There are issues. The industry’s growth has led to quality problems with solar panels, for example, and solar power takes up a lot of area.

But there are issues with any energy source: Northern Pass power lines, Merrimack Station carbon emissions, dams killing salmon, nuclear waste filling Seabrook’s storage pools, shale-gas fracking, and so on.

There ain’t no free lunch, as they say, but photovoltaics comes as close as possible for our energy-hungry world. We should encourage more of it.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).