New Hampshire has long been a laggard when it comes to solar power. Maybe we need some banjos.
“We’ve had fiddlers and guitar players at one of the raisers,” said Chris Kolb, president of a volunteer group called HAREI that installed 15 rooftop solar arrays atop homes last year through do-it-yourself group action, each culminating in the 21st-century version of a community barn raising.
“That was exactly my original concept,” said Paul Button, one of five co-founders of the group. “People said, what are we talking about? and I brought up the Amish barn-raiser. Everybody understands that.”
The Hillsborough County Area Renewable Energy Initiative (they skipped “county” when making the acronym) has been helping people take the solar plunge since 2012. It provides advice, expertise, cheaper materials through group purchases and free labor – including an electric ladder lift which can make it a lot easier and safer to get the 40-pound panels onto the roof. Starting with a small installation on a garden shed, HAREI has now done 60 projects totaling 566 kilowatts throughout the county.
The lure is money. Kolb said the cost for a typical HAREI rooftop project runs $1.25 to $1.50 per watt DC not including the state’s $1,000 rebate, compared to what he said was around $3.25 per watt from commercial firms.
A typical home solar array runs from 5,000 to 10,000 watts, so you’re still looking at a good chunk of change to install one even through HAREI. But using HAREI sharply cuts the payback period: savings on electricity bills can cover the capital outlay in just a few years.
That does not, of course, count the cost of time and labor that the homeowner invests in research, planning and installation effort. Being part of HAREI requires quite a lot of all of those – more than most people are able to provide. I’m one of those people, as it turns out: I went with a commercial installation for my rooftop PV system.
The inspiration for HAREI came partly, Button said, from PAREI, the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative, which held its first “energy raiser” in 2007.
PAREI has since expanded into other sustainability efforts, including a winter-composting workshop and local food initiatives such as Little Gardens Everywhere, a variation of the Victory Garden model. It doesn’t do individual solar installations any more but is involved in New Hampshire Solar Shares, which has built two large arrays and shares the electricity with about 20 families that are struggling financially.
“They are getting a portion of the credit on their electric bill,” said Peter Adams, co-founder of PAREI. “They are only in system for a period of time, and are asked to help find the next participant.”
That sort of hand-off is part of the HAREI model, as well. It’s not absolutely required that you help with other people’s solar raiser before you get help with your own, but it’s the usual practice. And, says Kolb, a good idea.
“You learn so much by doing it, working with tools. The exercise of going to someone else’s raiser is worth its weight in gold in terms of understanding what’s needed,” said Kolb.
HAREI is holding a series of virtual workshops for people thinking about solar at their homes or businesses. They’ll be online Wednesday and Saturday, and next Thursday. For details check the calendar on the website HAREI.org.
Kolb said 2020 was HAREI’s best year despite COVID-19 making it harder to gather together people to install the panels – teams were reduced from the preferred 12-15 to as few as 5, allowing more social distancing. At times the group had two installations happening at once with different groups.
There’s two reasons for this surge, Kolb thinks. One is that people were rushing to take advantage of the 26% federal tax credit before it went down to 23% – a reduction that didn’t occur, as it turns out, because President Biden’s budget kept the credit at 26%. The other was the stay-at-home pandemic.
“I think it was the COVID effect. More people were sitting at home thinking about their home environment,” said Kolb.
As great as all this is, volunteer and do-it-yourself efforts will never be anything but a rounding error in the energy transition, and we need a sweeping energy transition to have any hope of coping with climate change. That will require government action.
Alas, New Hampshire is generally a laggard when it comes to doing anything novel involving energy and this year looks like it will follow that trend, between a foolishly backward-looking bill that would eviscerate our renewable portfolio standard and the Public Utility Commission’s glacially slow effort to put a value on distributed energy like rooftop solar. On the bright side, there are a couple of bills on the table that would expand net metering to let schools and municipal buildings make better use of solar installations.
However, until New Hampshire voters put their ballots where their mouth is when it comes to government response to the increasingly dangerous climate, nibbling around the edges of the problem with awesome but too-small efforts like HAREI is all we’re going to do.
And that is not at all entertaining to contemplate, even if accompanied by banjos.