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Group net metering expands the possibility of solar power in the state

Dieter Ebert and his father, Dietrich, have long shared a passion for alternative energy. Now, they will build a 7,000-square-foot solar array near their neighboring North Hampton homes. Then, they will share the energy benefits with 10 friends and family members in the area.

The Eberts’ plan is possible under new state rules that allow group net metering.

The legislation, passed last year, permits a group of people, a business, a school district or a town – with multiple homes or offices on separate meters – to build one communal alternative energy source, which they can all use for power. In January, the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission released its first set of rules, which opened the door to project applications.

“Right away, I thought that was really interesting,” Dieter said. “My father and I thought it would be cool to build one solar array . . . to both get solar electricity.”

And as the architects of one of the state’s first fully permitted group net metering projects, the Eberts are now leading the emerging movement in New Hampshire. The father-son team plans to have their solar power system up and running by fall.

“We can’t continue to live on fossil fuels,” Dieter said. “I think it’s important to take this step.”

Proponents see the group net metering rule as a way to expand solar power in New Hampshire. They say it grants access to solar energy to those who may not have the means or space to build on their own. Municipalities or businesses can build one solar array to benefit multiple buildings.

“It’s a good way to get solar deployed,” said Clay Mitchell, policy director at New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association.

And solar developers say the interest level is there. Dan Clapp, the New Hampshire representative for ReVision Energy – a renewable energy company – has received calls from a variety of groups, ranging from homeowners associations and retirement communities to farmers, who are looking to lease a piece of their land to a potential developer.

Since January, the Public Utility Commission has approved six projects: one hydro plan and five solar projects, including the Eberts’ solar array. Two more are pending approval. That’s not a flood of applications but more like a trickle, said Jack Ruderman of the PUC.

It hasn’t been without challenges. The developers and interested parties have to traverse new rules and a complex, multi-layer permitting process that some say still needs more clarity. At the end of August, the PUC plans to hold a hearing to get input on the group net metering rules before finalizing them this fall.

“A solar array . . . everyone knows how to install them, it’s not magic,” Mitchell said. “The new part is the administrative part. That’s the only complicated part.”

The Eberts, who had one of the first projects to go through the entire process, had to learn as they went along.

“Every single step has been a hurdle,” Dieter said. “Many times, I have had to remind myself it is not always easy being the pioneer.”

Dieter and his father had long dreamed of powering their homes though solar panels, but it always seemed unattainable from a cost standpoint. That was, until the father-son duo attended a “do it yourself” solar panel construction class and heard about the new group net metering law. Then, they hired Andrew Kellar, founder of New Hampshire Solar Garden, to help walk them through the process, which included getting permits from the state, the town and their utility.

The solar garden they plan to build doesn’t directly power each of the homes in their group, which are mostly located in North Hampton, with a few in Ossipee. Rather, the power is channeled into the grid and the group members continue to pay a monthly electric bill. In order to be in the group, each member has to purchase electricity from the same utility, which in the Eberts’ case is Public Service of New Hampshire.

At the end of each month, PSNH will cut the Eberts a check for power that their 66-kilowatt system produced. Then the group’s host can decide how to divvy up that money. The state doesn’t issue guidance.

The Eberts plan to use the money as a refund to group members; they will pay them a penny for each kilowatt-hour of electricity that they used.

“Someone might use 9,000 kilowatt-hours in a year and see a $90 check from the array,” Kellar said.

The Eberts will use the rest of the check to pay off the cost of building the array. That will take about 15 years, Deiter predicts. But the panels will last at least 25 years.

Despite the struggles of undergoing a new administrative process and filing the paperwork, Dieter said it will be worth it.

“I would definitely do it again,” he said. “It’s great that my family can share this opportunity.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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