Solar Power: Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter to unveil project today

Staff photo by MATTHEW BURDETTE Dan Weeks, director of market development at ReVision Energy, talks about the inverters installed in the basement of the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter. The equipment will convert power gathered by the facility’s new solar array from direct current to alternating current. Weeks also is a volunteer at the Soup Kitchen. Officials will cut the ribbon on the project at a ceremony at 9 a.m. today. U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess will be on hand for the event.

NASHUA – U.S. Sen Maggie Hassan and Mayor Jim Donchess will help unveil the fruits of a major and progressive project today at the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter.

The pair will be joined by Soup Kitchen staff, volunteers, officials and community members as the organization cuts the ribbon on a recently installed hi-tech solar array that will power the facility, ease the burden of electric costs and propel the nonprofit into the future.

The event is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Soup Kitchen, 2 Quincy St. in Nashua.

Although the idea for solar panels at the Soup Kitchen has been around since renovations at the facility in 2014, the project didn’t gain traction until Executive Director Michael Reinke and volunteer Dan Weeks got to talking about the possibilities.

“This part of the project began over a beer at Martha’s Exchange, and I was thinking of my favorite nonprofits that I wanted to see go solar that have sunny roofs and pay electric bills,” said Weeks, who is the director of market development at ReVision Energy, the firm who installed the solar array. “It’s especially gratifying to me, as a local resident and Soup Kitchen volunteer since 2013, to see this nonprofit benefit from clean solar power and pass the savings on to needy folks in our community.”

Three sections of solar panels have been installed at the downtown facility, totaling 131 panels. Currently, the Soup Kitchen spends more than $20,000 a year on electricity.

The project is funded through an innovative financing tool that is available to nonprofits called a Power Purchase Agreement, Weeks said. ReVision Energy – a certified Benefit Corporation – is committed to providing these types of systems for nonprofit organizations, although the firm does do residential work, as well.

“We give them (the nonprofits) two choices,” Weeks said. “They can simply purchase the electricity from the array. We install it, we maintain it, we own it. We don’t charge them any cost of capital – anything extra – just the cost to built it, which we recoup over time as they buy the electricity from the array. If they do that, they are paying a bit less than the utility rates, so they are saving over the lifetime of the array. They will save tens of thousands of dollars.”

“Or, what we encourage them to do, and we help them with fundraising, is to do the PPA where they are just buying the electricity, not the actual array for the first six years, and then they buy the array (after that). It’s an option,” Weeks added. “They don’t have to do so, but if they buy the array, we are able to take the price down to about half of what the initial cost was. We can pass on the tax savings as we, a private company, are able to access. In that scenario, as soon as they own the array, every kilowatt hour that hits the panels is free to them. In fact, on sunny days, they will send it back out over the wires, and the houses in the neighborhood will get power. They will be paid for every kilowatt hour they export, and everything they use on site is electricity they don’t have to buy from the utility. In that scenario, they save six figures.”

The unique thing about the options Weeks describes, is the nonprofit doesn’t have to decide on a plan immediately.

“One of the good things, which is important to us, is the nonprofit doesn’t have to obligate to something that may not work for them in the long run,” Weeks said. “They (the nonprofit) can wait until year seven and say, ‘all right, we are ready, we want to fundraise and buy the array,’ or they can say, ‘we can’t do it this year, maybe year eight or nine or 10.’ Any year they choose, going up through 30 years, they can make the decision. If they never buy the array, they’re not able to raise that money or have other more pressing needs, they just keep buying electricity from it at a discount. They save either way, but they save more the sooner they buy the array.”

The installation of the solar panels took about two weeks, and wrapped up near the end of January. A crew from ReVision worked tirelessly on the project, sometimes in very inclement conditions.

“It went pretty smoothly, getting the modules up there (on the roof),” said ReVision Energy installer Ben Smith. “They (the panels) weigh about 40 pounds each.”

Some structural work was needed during the installation process, and three inverters (two 9 kilowatt and one 14.4 kilowatt) were installed in the facility’s basement to allow for conversion of power. In the solar power gathering process, direct current electricity is generated, which for use in homes and facilities must be converted to alternating current power. The equipment installed in the basement will accomplish this, and a special meter – put in by the utility company – will help to track the energy that is produced.

As for New Hampshire’s famous winters, weather does have some impact on solar-power production. Snow can gather on the array – especially the portion that is on the Soup Kitchen’s flat roof.

“Snow does slump off (the slated portions), said ReVision installer Eric Zulaski. “It (snow) will build up a little bit, but structurally, (the roof) will be able to take it. The production might go down a little bit, though.”

“When we model the systems, when we design them, and run how much electricity they will generate, we assume in the winter months a flat array is largely buried in snow,” Weeks added. “We assume lower productions, and we build that into the cash flow. They are still saving money. They could send somebody up to shovel it off if they wanted to, but its probably not worth the cost of labor to do so. The solar panels are very solid. They’re warrantied for 25 years. They will get pelted by all sorts of weather, but they are made with high-tempered glass surfaces. There are no moving parts, so they require virtually no maintenance.”

It’s that low maintenance and cost savings that attracted Zulaski to solar power.

“I installed panels at my house,” he said. “I saved a little bit of money and wanted to invest it somewhere, and what better way to invest your money than into your own home? That’s the route I chose. I am enjoying that.”

“It’s not necessarily for environmental issues that could motivate a person,” Zulaski added. “I think for a lot of people, the bottom line is driving people to do it. We see towns going that direction, and towns generally don’t act in the interest of some lofty, ideological motive. It’s all about the money.”

“My wife and I save about a thousand bucks a year,” Weeks noted. “We used to spend more than that on electricity. A lot of systems we are installing now will pay themselves off in six or seven year. Then, you have another 35 or 40 years of free power. The economics make a lot of sense. I know for the nonprofits, it definitely makes a difference.”

Even with the economics, the positive impact on the environment and the local community is a driving factor, as well.

“For this nonprofit, they do care a lot about environmental stewardship,” Weeks said. “They are going to be around here probably for the long haul. Hopefully, we don’t need soup kitchens in the future, but we’ve needed them in the past. They try not to waste any food. Thanks to them, a lot of stuff that would get thrown out from supermarkets gets put to good use. This is very much in keeping with that. Now, they are able to take the step to not having to import fossil fuels and relying on the sun instead.”

Reinke is thrilled with the results, and says even greater things may be on the way.

“The panels look great on the side there,” Reinke said. “It’s going to be a different look, but I think what is even more important is what you don’t see. We are consuming far less fossil fuel and we are also saving money. Every dollar we are not paying to Eversource means a dollar we can use to buy food or provide shelter or help people find jobs, which is where I think donors want their money to go in the first place.”

“My larger vision for Nashua is that, how do we create a reputation for what we want the city to be? A city that promotes solar,” Reinke added. “One of the things we are working on, not directly with ReVision, is trying to find partners who are currently growing grass, which is great for cows, but as far as I know there aren’t too many cows living in Nashua these days. “Instead, say maybe we can use that land to grow tomatoes or spinach or cauliflower or whatever that can feed people who are hungry. So, we hope to maybe have some more news about a potential partnership with a local company that is growing some grass that maybe we can turn into some vegetables.”

For additional information about the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency – call 603-889-7770 or visit www.nsks.org.

Editor in Chief Matthew Burdette can be reached

at mburdette@nashuatelegraph.com, 594-1240 or

@Telegraph_MattB.