What’s behind the solar flare-up?

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Climate Change & Energy

“Our neighborhood is ablaze with new solar installations,” says Charles Forcey of Durham, New Hampshire.  “When we put solar PV system in five years ago, we were the third, I think, in the neighborhood and a lot of people remarked on seeing it or reading about it and taking a second look at solar thereafter,” he adds. “Just a lot of peer-to-peer word of mouth!"

“Amazing, now, especially on Oyster River Road and Mill Pond Road—three or four more are going in as soon as the [net-metering] cap is raised,” Forcey says, referring to the legal limit on the megawatts of renewable electricity installed that can be sold or banked onto the grid.

Granted, the neighborhood Forcey is talking about is next to the University of New Hampshire, one of the leaders among US campuses for renewable energy and energy-efficiency, but the phenomenon he describes, “peer-to-peer,” is actually a key to solar development anywhere, a study in the October, 2014, Journal of Economic Geography, confirms.

In “Spatial patterns of solar photovoltaic system adoption: the influence of neighbors and the built environment,” Kenneth Gillingham, at the Yale School of Forestry and Marcello Graziano at the University of Connecticut, found that even one solar installation will increase the potential for more solar installations within a half-mile radius by nearly half (44 percent).

This phenomenon is at the heart of the success of SmartPower, a non-profit founded in 2002 with the express purpose of using product-marketing strategies to increase public awareness of the viability of renewable energy projects.  Their process promotes projects through education, coordination, and increasing economies of scale.

In 2015, SmartPower ran Solarize campaigns in several states, including New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.  In southern New Hampshire, in conjunction with the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, SmartPower campaigns in Candia, Chester, Deerfield and Derry resulted in 91 homes and three businesses “going solar,” a total of 1.35 MWs of new solar energy is being generated in the region.

And SmartPower “has its fingerprints” on the work of other communities and community organizations around New Hampshire,” according to Antonia “Toni” Bouchard, COO of the Washington, DC-based non-profit.

“We worked with them to craft the infrastructure, RFPs, and the toolkits to help them go further faster,” she says, noting they worked “behind the scenes with Vital Communities, which has run very successful campaigns in the Upper Valley.”

In the past 14 years, SmartPower has honed its skills for the benefit of all.  “What we have really tried to do it is to perfect best practices of how this works, so that we can go to any state with these best practices,” says SmartPower President Brian Keane. “As a nonprofit, our role, our job, is to get the best practices we’ve developed out to these communities and organizations to help maintain this groundswell.”

Nowhere is that swell more pronounced than in Connecticut, where more than 2,000 residents in 58 communities have been able to install solar systems.  “We started working on Solarize campaigns in Connecticut in 2012,” Keane says. “In the past four years, we’ve seen more megaWatts of rooftop solar installed there than are in the largest commercial solar array in all of New England.  We’ve done more solar in less time than any utility in New England,” he adds. 

A big part of the surge in Connecticut is the presence of the Connecticut Green Bank, stated in 2011, which leverages small public money to draw private investment into the renewable-energy market.

“What’s exciting about the Solarize campaigns in Connecticut is that solar is now funded there by private dollars,” says Keane.  “Over the past three to four years, they’ve been able to sustain a private market and we’re seeing private dollars available to pay us to run solarize campaigns.”  But, he cautions, Connecticut is “an anomaly.

“Every state is different and in a different phase. It still requires charitable dollars to get things going, grassroots education of the public and the installers, but all of that is still to say that there is opportunity on top of opportunity on top of opportunity.”

The SmartPower campaigns in Massachusetts and Connecticut were the impetus for Vital Communities (VC) in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley.  SmartPower and renewable-energy funder The John Merck Fund approached VC to adapt the SmartPower tools for northern New England, according to the VC website.  Sarah Simonds, energy program manager for Vital Communities, says that dovetailed well with the group’s plans at the time.

“​Back in 2013, we decided it was time to do something to ramp up the pace of solar adoption in our region. At the time, Connecticut and Massachusetts were running a program called Solarize. We borrowed from their model and developed a version of Solarize that works well in our rural communities,” she says.

“In 2014 and 2015 we helped 24 towns in the Upper Valley launch Solarize campaigns. In the end, ” she says, “we nearly doubled the number of solar homes in our entire region prior to Solarize.”

 Simonds notes that the group always intended the tool they developed would be available to other communities.  “So as we were wrapping up our final round of Solarize Upper Valley, we packaged the best parts of our program into an online Solarize Toolkit. Now any group of volunteers in any community can replicate what we've done and help residents go solar.

“The Toolkit is very comprehensive. From the start we were committed to the idea of an ‘open source’ Solarize program, and we're proud to share the fruits of our labor. The toolkit includes detailed timelines, checklists, templates, tutorial videos, and even an ‘outreach library’ with ideas from our 24 Solarize towns on how to get the word out.”

Perhaps best of all, the toolkit has a legacy of success.  ​“More than 370 homes have installed solar directly through Solarize Upper Valley campaigns,” Simonds says. “That's 2.2 megaWatts of solar energy.”

Part of the Vital Communities campaign was carried out in Andover, a town not served by VC, but encouraged to join in the Solarize project by teaming up with the towns of New London and Wilmot, which are in the VC coverage area.  Known locally as Solarize Kearsarge, the three-town project was spearheaded by members of the Andover Energy Group, according to Larry Chase, chair of the volunteer organization formed in 2011.

The Andover group was pleased with the project outcome, which included 20 homes committing to “go solar,” Chase said, "not only with the solid commitments made during the campaign, but also with the high level of interest shown, which may lead to more installations of solar and other alternative energy sources down the road." 

Indeed, wherever they are run, Solarize campaigns seem to produce the same results: a lot more solar, taking advantage, it seems, of the “if you see it, you’re more likely to build it” phenomenon described in the research by Gillingham and Graziano.  Kate Epsen, executive director of the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association, credits SmartPower with putting together “a brain trust of energy people and marketers that came up with their process.

“They came up with a really smart model for getting solar into communities with a peer-to-peer trust and marketing effort that combines ease of access to an installer and gives everybody progressive discount pricing,” she says. “The more people that sign-up, the lower the individual cost becomes, so it kind of makes a big, hard, complicated purchase that much easier for people.”

Epsen says several campaigns in 2015 and some ongoing efforts in 2016 have pumped up solar numbers in New Hampshire, including two rounds of Solarize campaigns over seven communities in southern New Hampshire. 

“There have also been non-SmartPower campaigns in random communities,” Epson says, indicating Wolfeboro and the Peterborough area as among those.  One example is a Solarize campaign started in Bethlehem, Easton, Franconia and Sugar Hill, initiated by the Ammonoosuc Regional Energy Team (ARET), with help from a Grow grant from the New England Grassroots Energy Fund.

The campaign, which kicked off on January 24th and winds up on May 1, has been successful so far, according to ARET chair David Van Houten.

“We’re at about 77 kw signed up,” he says, which is 15 households. “Other Solarize campaigns have experienced a surge in sign-ups just before the deadline, and I'm unsure how that will play out here, but chances of hitting Tier 4 (100 kw, the next per-unit price break) are looking pretty good,” he adds.

O’Meara Solar is the solar installer chosen in a bid process for the ARET campaign, and owner Darren O’Meara says he’s happy with the process and the potential.

“The campaign has been great for meeting potential customers,” he says. “It has been well organized by the ARET team, and everyone has been great to work with. The customers have been very supportive of the effort.”  O’Meara notes that the weather has also cooperated “unusually well for site visits.”

O’Meara credits rising utility rates in New Hampshire with helping to propel the solar boom in this state.  But the biggest single factor in the solar PV boom is likely the reduced cost of PV systems, which has come down dramatically in the last five years, according to Jack Ruderman, director of Community Initiatives for ReVision Energy, one of the leading solar suppliers in the Northeast.

“It used to be that solar thermal was very inexpensive compared to PV, but it’s much closer now in installation cost and payback,” he says.  “And PV is sexier; people like to have their roof covered with these shiny black panels. And also it’s easier to understand: you put these panels on your roof, they generate electricity, it goes into your inverter and it goes to all of your outlets and appliances and the excess power grows out to the grid.”  Compare that to figuring out how solar hot water will comport with your current water system and PV is a no-brainer, Ruderman says.

“The main thing is, people just don’t gravitate toward solar thermal for whatever reason.  They come in and say I want solar panels to generate electricity.” 

Ruderman, a long-time observer of all things energy in New Hampshire, calls the potential for solar in New Hampshire “enormous,” and adds, “it seems like we’ve reached a kind of tipping point in New Hampshire, where a few years ago we were maybe installing, statewide, all companies, about 250 PV solar systems and this past year we’re well over 1500 homes and climbing.”

It took a long time for New Englanders to get over the idea that our fickle weather and long winters meant we didn’t have the photons for solar, he notes, but points out “we get 33 percent more sunshine each year than Germany and they are, of course, the world leader for installed solar, so the resource is fine.”

With a fine resource and a new net-metering cap proposed at 100 megWatts, the flare for solar should continue in New Hampshire.

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