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Concord seeks bids for a solar farm

Last modified: 9/5/2015 11:36:26 PM
Concord is looking into whether it makes sense to install at least 1,000 kilowatts of solar panels, one of a number of proposals across New Hampshire that reflect solar power’s growth from the state’s historically low levels, and also how the field is dependent on tax credits, subsidies or utility payments.

“That’s the only way I see any of these projects working, with some sort of assistance,” Concord City Manager Tom Aspell said Thursday.

The city has asked firms to bid by Oct. 8 on the project, which seeks to put at least one megawatt of photovoltaic solar panels – roughly the amount of electricity used by 200 homes – near either the city’s wastewater or water-treatment plants, both of which are major users of electricity, or on the capped landfill at Old Turnpike Road, which has plenty of open space where nothing else can be built.

The winning bidder would lease the land from the city and own the panels, taking advantage of state renewable energy credits that support solar power and federal tax credits. The electricity would be sold to Concord under a 20-year arrangement known as a power purchase agreement.

The potential sites were chosen by Beacon Integrated Solutions, a Boston-based consultant hired by the council in December, and reflect common locations for municipal solar projects. Peterborough, for example, is about to turn on a one-megawatt facility at its wastewater treatment plant, while a number of closed landfills in Massachusetts are being covered with solar panels.

The Concord proposal also seeks bids on building smaller solar projects – less than 100 kilowatts total – for other city buildings. Those would not sell any excess power back into the grid, but would be small enough that all their power output would be used by city government.

Details about paying for any project would depend partly on where it goes, said Aspell. The roughly $34,000 used for the Beacon consultants was paid 50 percent from the general fund and 50 percent from the sewer fund.

Any addition of solar power by the city would reflect a relative growth in New Hampshire.

A new report by Environment New Hampshire Research & Policy Center said that solar power capacity in New Hampshire grew a whopping 149 percent last year, the third-best rate in the country. But this success has a caveat: New Hampshire was able to report large percentage increases only because it was starting from a very low base.

By Environment New Hampshire’s measure, even after the strong growth New Hampshire has the lowest amount of total photovoltaic solar power of any of the 32 states in the report, and at a per-capita rate it had less than half the solar power of Maine and less than one-25th the amount of Massachusetts or Vermont.

Advocates say this is a reflection of New Hampshire’s relatively weak support for solar power compared to neighboring states. New Hampshire has a price cap of $55 per megawatt for what are known as renewable energy certificates, paid to power generators for renewable energy, which is less than one-third the price in Massachusetts, for example.

New Hampshire also has a relatively low cap of 50 megawatts statewide for net metering, under which utilities pay owners of solar panels for excess electricity they send into the grid, and that cap is almost full. Without net metering payments, solar panels become less financially attractive.

In a conference call Thursday, Jonathan Gregory from ReVision Energy, a company that has grown from three employees to 100 in New Hampshire and Maine over five years, said that the net metering cap in particular needed to be raised by the state. He also warned about the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit, which is set to shrink or expire in 2016, depending on the size of projects, unless Congress changes its mind.

“This growth could come to a screaming halt without legislative action,” Gregory said.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sets state-by-state limits on carbon pollution from coal and gas power plants, is another incentive for solar energy. According to Environment New Hampshire research, solar power could easily meet about half the pollution reduction targets required by the plan.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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