There are all sorts of green-energy reasons to admire what the UNH Durham campus is doing with electricity and heat but if that doesn’t move you, consider the green-eyeshade reasons.
“It gives us budget certainty,” said Bill Janelle, associate vice president of facilities and operations at Durham, making a statement to gladden the heart of accountants everywhere – even those who don’t wear the stereotypical emerald-tinted eyeshades.
Janelle was talking about a system made possible by a decade-old program called EcoLine that uses methane emitted by the huge Rochester landfill to create electricity and heat, a program that has been goosed in the past two years by the Legislature’s improvements to our net-metering program under which anybody can sell power to the grid.
The campus now takes the processed landfill gas and not only uses it to heat many campus buildings – enough to offset about 5 million gallons of heating oil annually, they say – but also to run a pair of steam turbines. One is hooked directly to the campus for heat heat and cooling, as well as providing around 75% of all electricity for the campus, while the other is connected to the grid and can sell power back in the rare occasions when the campus doesn’t need all of it.
“We use almost everything in Durham – 99% – and anything we don’t we send to Keene (State University),” he said. Note that the actual electrons aren’t shipped to Cheshire County but that Durham is the host and Keene is what is known as the off-taker, meaning they get financial credit for excess power.
The system was made possible by changes to the net-metering program that allows hosts like UNH to net-meter up to 5 megawatts, compared to the previous limit of 1 MW, which was too small to be financially worth it. Anything that saves operating costs for our cash-strapped public university system is a good idea, but New Hampshire still faces too many unnecessary, self-imposed limits on benefiting from the photovoltaic revolution.
New Hampshire has been a laggard because we’ve fixated on the way that solar power, like many new technologies, doesn’t fit into existing habits and economic patterns. When such a misfit happens the knee-jerk reaction is to limit the new technology instead of improving the way they’ve done things.
A classic case was the rule put on the first automobiles requiring people to walk in front of cars holding a red flag because they scared horses and went too fast for the road-usage habits of the time.
Putting sharp limits on net metering because it will be “unfair” to people without solar – shifting the cost of maintaining poles and wires onto those folks – is the modern equivalent of forcing somebody to walk in front of your car with a red flag. It makes sense from a certain limited point of view and is much easier than redesigning the existing system, but it’s self-defeating in the long run.
The state Department of Energy commissioned a study last year about this subject. It said rooftop solar panels very slightly increase costs for other utility customers in New Hampshire by about 1% but bring a big financial benefit to the system as a whole, thus saving everybody money. The study estimated that under current projections in New Hampshire through 2035, distributed energy, mostly from solar panels, will raise the average bill of non-solar customers by about 1%. But it also estimated that the solar power generated will be worth between 9 to 12 cents per kilowatt-hour to the grid, mostly from buying less fuel for power plants and doing less maintenance to transmission lines. Those savings, roughly one-third the energy price paid by residential customers, are much greater than any shifted costs.
The Department of Energy will be submitting findings to the Public Utilities Commission this week concerning our net metering program. Despite that finding, solar fans fear they’ll recommend cutting the price that utilities pay to small users, like me with my 5 KW rooftop panels, for excess electricity we send to the grid and the utility then resells.
Let’s hope not. But if the payments are lowered, let’s hope it comes as part of a package that rethinks a century-old system of payments and costs that is being rapidly rendered irrelevant by technology. I’m getting tired of walking along the road carrying that red flag!