New Hampshire will never be mistaken as the Sunshine State, but, believe it or not, the Granite State is well positioned to join in the global solar power movement and take advantage of clean, affordable, economically stable, reliable and safe solar energy.
The Solar Energy Industry Association ranks New Hampshire as only 32nd in its use of solar power in the U.S. However, this is also an indication of a large, untapped potential for solar in the state.
New Hampshire has had several innovative renewable energy successes in recent years, such as the landfill gas pipeline at the University of New Hampshire and new biomass energy plants. The biomass program has been implemented to take advantage of the state's forestry resource; however, many don't realize that New Hampshire also has a viable solar resource. In fact, New Hampshire gets roughly 20% more annual sunshine than Germany, a world leader in solar energy installations.
New Hampshire has a considerable amount of rural land that could be used for large-scale ground-mounted solar development projects. In addition to undeveloped land (i.e., greenfields), solar development is often the best possible use for contaminated sites (i.e., brownfields) or closed landfill properties. Redeveloping these underutilized properties effectively converts a liability into an asset.
Frequently, these solar assets become important new sources of tax revenue. In fact, some solar host municipalities in Massachusetts have suggested that solar power projects are the most viable industry in their current tax base.
Compared to other types of power plants, solar power projects are relatively low-impact projects. They typically produce no noise, no emissions, no pollution and no traffic. If necessary, a solar array can be screened by fences or vegetative barriers to minimize any visual impacts from neighboring properties. For these reasons, solar projects can often be installed near developed areas where there is an existing demand for electricity.
Given these positive land uses, the limited impacts and the generation of revenues, solar power development projects can represent a real net benefit to a community.
Economically, the solar sector offers an opportunity for New Hampshire to leverage its high-technology industries and university programs to stimulate new projects and create jobs in technology and clean energy. This is where some basic policy changes could make a real difference. Solar incentive programs in Massachusetts can be credited with helping to create 8,400 solar jobs in the state. By comparison, New Hampshire only has about 10% of that number currently employed in the solar sector, equating to 860 solar jobs. Comparing this to the biomass power industry, the new 75 MW biomass plant in Berlin, N.H., has only created 40 jobs.
Jobs are not the only reason for New Hampshire to chart a more solar-friendly course. Sunlight is a domestic fuel source that is free to everyone and, therefore, solar power provides one of the best solutions to energy independence. Generating domestic solar power in New Hampshire reduces the need for power generated by other fuel sources, including imported natural gas or foreign oil.
New Hampshire spends approximately $4 billion per year for energy generated by imported fossil fuels, which make up 66% of all energy consumed. A diverse energy mix, including independent sources such as solar, would give New Hampshire more control over long-term energy supply and costs.
Solar is typically a distributed generation (DG) resource, with power generation at or near the point of consumption. Generating power on-site rather than at central generating stations generally reduces the cost, complexity, interdependencies and inefficiencies associated with transmission and distribution. Furthermore, DG facilities, including commercial-scale solar PV projects, can provide a backup to the current New Hampshire grid system, which mainly comprises a few centrally located, utility-scale power plants. Not only are these inefficient, but these traditional grid systems are susceptible to major power outages – for example, over 200,000 customers lost power for up to four days in New Hampshire last Thanksgiving.
With the development of more DG facilities and microgrid systems that connect generation and users at a local level, solar power can be a big part of New Hampshire's long-term energy security. This trend can be seen in other eastern states – notably, New York.
Based on recent filings with the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, Unitil, Liberty and the New Hampshire Electric Co-op are projecting rate hikes of 29% to 50% in 2015. These increases are due to a combination of constraints in the natural gas supply and regional shortages of electricity generation. The New England grid will lose about 10% of its capacity over the next year or two.
Public Service of New Hampshire's (PSNH) coal-fired generation avoids short-term rate hikes but increases long-term exposure to environmental liability. For example, PSNH recently had to spend $244 million on a scrubber to reduce mercury emissions at its 439 MW Merrimack Station coal plant in Bow, N.H.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also targeting coal plants for carbon emissions as a pollutant – which could lead to more costs and possibly even coal plant closures, as has happened in Massachusetts and other states. Directly or indirectly, these environmental costs will make their way to the ratepayers of New Hampshire.
For all of these reasons, the time has come for the municipalities, institutions, businesses and individuals of New Hampshire to embrace and increase solar power as part of their energy mix. As observed in other states, stimulating solar development requires a coordinated public and private effort, including new state policies and incentive programs.
There are several groups in New Hampshire that are trying to build momentum for solar projects and policy, including the N.H. Clean Tech Council and the Community Development Finance Authority. These groups recognize that an investment in solar today will yield many long-term benefits for the state.
Max Lamson is senior project manager for Kennedy/Jenks Consultants. He has supported the development of over 100 MW of U.S. solar and wind power projects in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Lamson can be reached by email at MaxLamson@KennedyJenks.com.