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Monday, January 27, 2014

NH solar power isn’t as small as you’d think

David Brooks

Remember “small is beautiful”? That should be solar power’s slogan in New Hampshire.

Other electricity-generating methods get all the attention due to big, controversial things – wind farms on ridgelines, Northern Pass, nuclear waste and costs, natural gas’ stranglehold on the grid – but solar is so small that it creeps under the radar. ...

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Remember “small is beautiful”? That should be solar power’s slogan in New Hampshire.

Other electricity-generating methods get all the attention due to big, controversial things – wind farms on ridgelines, Northern Pass, nuclear waste and costs, natural gas’ stranglehold on the grid – but solar is so small that it creeps under the radar.

How small? Well, the biggest solar power plant in New Hampshire by a country mile is coming to the Peterborough wastewater treatment plant. At 947 kilowatts – enough for roughly 200 homes – it will be more than five times as large as any other photovoltaicinstallation in New Hampshire.

Sounds big, but it’s tiny by utility standards, with total output smaller than a single wind turbine, let alone a wind farm. It would hardly be a rounding error for Seabrook Station, HydroQuebec, or PSNH’s various power plants.

So solar power doesn’t really count in New Hampshire, then? Not really: There’s more around New Hampshire than many people realize, including me.

Last year, I underestimated New Hampshire solar installations by more than one half.

As of 2011, there were 7.6 megawatts – 7,600 kilowatts, if you prefer – of small “net metered” facilities in the state, according to the New Hampshire Renewable Energy Fund’s 2013 report.

“Net metered” facilities generate excess electricity that the local utility are required to purchase. About two-thirds of this state total are in PSNH territory.

About half of that is residential: More than 1,000 people have gotten rebates for installing such systems, almost all of them solar power.

What makes solar invisible is that it’s distributed – spread out. Nobody builds backyard hydropower dams or gas-fired power plants or wind farms (“small wind,” alas, is a dud hereabouts), but close to 100 people in Greater Nashua have built backyard solar-power plants.

According to the state’s residential solar rebate program, a dozen homes in Hollis have a total of 44 kilowatts of solar panels draped over them; in Nashua, 8 homes have 30.5 kilowatts; Hudson and Amherst have 6 homes each, with a few more sprinkled around the Souhegan Valley, Merrimack and elsewhere.

(The state’s leading town for solar photovoltaic – solar electricity, not hot-water production – is Sandwich, due largely to a very active and interested electrician in that town, I’m told.)

This distribution makes solar radically different than other power technologies, which create lots of electricity in one location and ship it over wires to lots of customers. Solar’s so-called distributed generation solves some problems – you don’t have to build more power lines, and it can grow quickly with little upfront cost – and creates other problems, notably the question of backup power when the sun isn’t shining.

Distributed generation is also why our solar successes are hard to see.

Solar power, for example, doesn’t show up at all on the list of New England’s renewable electricity sources that is compiled by ISO-NE, which runs the power grid – and that list even includes “landfill gas.” The problem is that distributed sources, usually under 5 kilowatt, aren’t easily reported to ISO-NE.

The Open PV Project (openpv.nrel.gov/
rankings
) from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory tries to estimate the amount of solar panels around the country, but the results are suspect. For example, they put New Hampshire at No. 32 in installed capacity but claim we’ve got barely 4 megawatts, about half the state’s confirmed net-metering total.

And that total doesn’t count the many mid-sized facilities that institutions and companies have put up, from Stoneyfield Farms’ 50-kw array that was the first corporate PV site in the state, to the 140-kw array on a Somersworth food-distribution plant. They total at least another megawatt, statewide.

And another type of PV installation is coming. Last year New Hampshire approved group net metering so that, say, a neighborhood can build a single PV system, too big for any single house, then share the net-metered savings. The state is drawing up rules for its implementation:

“The phone has been ringing off the hook - a lot of developers have called with a lot of questions about it, and we are expecting to get applications in the very near future,” said Jack Ruderman, who oversees the sustainable energy. In other words, small is beautiful, even when it’s not as small as it used to be.

(To answer a question that comes up every time I write about solar power: I do not have photovoltaic panels at my house but I do have a solar hot-water system on my roof.)

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).