Solar energy program in Plymouth to benefit low-income families
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
PLYMOUTH — The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative is “ahead of the curve” when it comes to assisting low-income customers, according to the woman spearheading New Hampshire Solar Shares.
New legislation this year sets aside 15 percent of the state’s renewable energy fund to benefit low- to moderate-income residents in manufactured housing communities and multi-family rental housing units that implement community solar projects.
When the legislation passed, Plymouth already had its own plan in place.
“In 2016, the co-op recognized that they wanted to do something for their low-income members, and proposed building solar PV arrays, with all the energy being credited to those who are struggling to meet their daily needs,” said Sandra Jones, co-director of the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative.
Jones brought the co-op’s idea to the board of her tax-exempt nonprofit, which voted to take on the New Hampshire Solar Shares program as a subsidiary enterprise.
This month, the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative is giving the new program a boost by offering to match, up to $10,000, the donations to New Hampshire Solar Shares.
The new nonprofit organization, formed in January, aims to build three solar arrays in co-op communities by October 2018, generating 125 kilowatts of energy. Eighty-five percent of the energy proceeds will go to reduce the electric bills of participating low-income families.
Community members with an interest in energy, services for low-income families, sustainability, and healthy environments will serve as volunteers under a part-time program coordinator. The solar arrays will be built using funds from grants, individual donors, fundraisers, and the state’s solar incentive program. Volunteers will prepare the sites, and professional solar installers will do the work.
To get the program off the ground, New Hampshire Solar Shares was looking for landowners willing to donate three half-acre lots. Alex Ray was the first to step forward, offering a portion of the parking lot of the Common Man Inn and Spa, next to Frosty Scoops, for the inaugural installation.
The organization will be looking for two other locations to meet its initial goal. Donated sites are leased to New Hampshire Solar Shares, which says the arrays will be built in an environmentally responsible manner and done in an artful way.
“We’re not looking to place them in an open field,” Jones said.
The ideal site is within 200 feet of a power line, with excellent solar exposure, and is not on wetlands or agricultural property.
Landowners may be able to take charitable tax deduction for the value of the leased land.
The Public Utilities Commission has not yet established the process for distributing funds allocated by HB 129. Will the money go directly to residents covered, through a block grant to the community, or through an agency? Those details are being worked out in Concord.
Another source of funding, which is allowing New Hampshire Solar Shares to get the program off the ground, is a $10,000 Community Solar Challenge grant from the United States Department of Energy’s Sun Shot Division. If it succeeds in getting three solar arrays in place by October 2018, New Hampshire Solar Shares will be eligible for cash prizes.
New Hampshire Solar Shares also received a $75,000 business tax credit grant from the Community Development Finance Authority, allowing businesses to receive business tax credits for donating to the solar project. Dunkin’ Donuts of Plymouth was the first to make a pledge, followed by Revision Energy, a solar installer.
Once the first array is built, families whose incomes are verified by established social service agencies may apply to have a portion of their power costs offset by solar energy. Energy education is part of the program, teaching them to further reduce their cost of electricity through conservation methods.
The estimated 125 kilowatts of power to be generated is estimated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 100 tons per year, “based on a typical power resource mix of today’s New Hampshire Electric Cooperative generation,” according to the New Hampshire Solar Shares website.
Iain MacLeod, director of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness, said, “As the effects of climate change become more apparent in our state and on our native wildlife populations, the need to reduce CO2 emissions through increased generation of renewable energy becomes more important. We applaud this initiative and its positive outcomes for New Hampshire’s natural environment.”
Also offering support for the project is Roger Larochelle, executive director of the Squam Lakes Conservation Society. “Helping local families with renewable electricity contributes to building a stronger and more sustainable community, which is also our goal with land conservation,” he said.
Patrick Tufts, president and chief executive officer of Granite United Way, said, “Our Whole Village Family Resource Center in Plymouth will be working closely with social service programs to identify program participants and maximize this opportunity.”
Jones said the goal is to establish such arrays of photovoltaic cells in each of the communities served by the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, and the program can serve as a model for other communities to build their own solar power sources.
Artist's rendition of the solar array near Frosty Scoops and the Common Man Inn and Spa in Plymouth. (Courtesy graphic)