- Courtesy photo
Individual solar arrays like these, shown at the Nubanusit Neighborhood co-housing development in Peteroborough, rather than large industrial arrays, make up most of New Hampshire's photovoltaic production.
- File photo by Don Himsel
Solar panels for electricity and hot water are shown on Robert Gual's Hollis home during a tour of "solar homes" in 2010.
Solar panels on N.H. homes continue to increase, although slowly
Homeowners continue to line up for help installing solar panels on their roofs around New Hampshire – particularly in Hollis, which has more such installations than any town in the region – despite uncertainty about the state rebate program.
“The stop-start nature of the program … clearly discouraged a lot of people from filing for rebates. But all those on the waiting list are getting funded at this point,” said John Osgood, Energy Conservation Coordinator with the state Public Utilities Commission.
The PUC oversees the program, which pays up to $4,500 for an installation, using money collected from electricity providers in lieu of meeting renewable energy standards set by the state. This fund has been hit by the recession and ran out of money last year, putting it on hold for a while. It has restarted but rebates, originally as much as $6,000 per project, have been trimmed.
As of the first week of August, a total of $2.55 million had been paid out to 433 solar-panel installations from Nashua to Berlin, while another 103 projects have been accepted and are awaiting final approval and rebates. A total of 1,369 kilowatts worth of solar power has been installed, and another 352 kilowatts is in the pipeline.
These involve photovoltaic panels that no more than 5 kilowatts of electricity each. A typical installation produces between a third and a half of the electricity used in a home during a year.
While impressive growth over just a few years past, this total isn’t much by utility standards. Even a small power plant generates at least 30 times as much power over the course of the year as all those solar panels combined, while Massachusetts incentives have spurred a couple solar farms that each produce almost as much power as all the panels in New Hampshire.
In Hollis, there are nine solar-power installations on homes, dating to mid-2008 when the program first began paying rebates. The only Greater Nashua town that comes close to that number is Bedford, with five installations.
Those two towns have the highest income in the region, which reflects the fact that even with federal and state support, solar panels remain expensive.
Mark Weissflog, owner of KW Management in Nashua, said a 3-kilowatt system costs around $17,000 to install on a typical home. About half of that would be covered by a $5,100 federal tax rebate and $3,750 rebate from the state, and some communities offer a property-tax exemption.
It would take about 13 years for savings from reduced electric bills to cover the installation cost, he estimated.
Karen Cramton , owner of Nashua Energy Options in Hollis, which installs solar systems in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, said people who could afford the upfront cost and who plan on staying in their home more than a decade can still find this a good investment move. Reduced power bills are the equivalent of a continuous interest payment from your investment, which can be higher than returns offered by many financial institutions.
“There’s not much else you can put your money in that pays you back continuously,” she said.
The largest residential solar system in the region wasn’t part of the rebate program, because it’s too large and was built before that program got going.
The 42-kilowatt system at Gatewood Manor, a retirement community off West Hollis Street, was installed in October 2008 and “covers 25-30 percent of power consumption” for the 97 units, said Bill Walker, vice president of Housing Initiatives of New England, the nonprofit that owns development, along with a number of others in the region.
“We did this to get a better understanding of operational expenses,” he said. “But we haven’t had any operational expenses. It sits up there on the roof, day in day out, and even on a day like today with cloud cover, you generate some power.”
In Peterborough, 17 homeowners in the unusual co-housing development Nubanusit Neighborhood Farm put solar panels on their roofs recently, making it the most solar-powered residential area in the state.
The development has a centralized heating system fired by wood pellets, grows some of its own food in its own CSA farm, has a communal Common House, and touts the environmental design of its houses. Solar panels fit its image perfectly.
Still, said Richard Pendleton, one of the development’s founders, money made the decision possible.
Having lots of panels installed on lots of houses at once lowered costs, reducing payback period for some of the units to as little as seven years. The development managed to get its application in before maximum rebates were reduced.
“We had envisioned doing solar hot water first, but these incentives were finally more beneficial to us,” he said.
The community also used an anonymous “internal loan system,” in which some residents lent money to others who couldn’t afford the upfront cost until the state rebates came in.
“This is a community where people want to stay. We help each other,” he said.
Massachusetts offers considerably more generous support, and requirements, for solar power, including the use of renewable energy credits. As a result, utilities are building several large-scale solar projects around that state, each with 2,000 kilowatts or more – almost as much as exists in all of New Hampshire, including several large corporation installations such as that on the roof of PSNH headquarters in Manchester.
Since April of last year, New Hampshire has also had a rebate program offering an average of $2,600 for solar hot-water systems, which are often a more efficient way to use energy from the sun in a home.
The program used a mix of money from the state Renewable Energy Fund and federal stimulus funds. The federal funds have run out, and the state has tweaked it, raising the state payments to as much as $1,900, and lowering the size of systems that are eligible.
David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or firstname.lastname@example.org.