Concord Quakers to share extra electricity generated by solar array

  • A 16-kilowatt solar array atop the Quaker meetinghouse in Canterbury is shown. David Brooks

Monitor staff
Published: 4/27/2018 4:51:21 PM

Not everyone has a large enough roof on a south-facing building that can hold far more solar panels than needed.

When faced with that dilemma, the Concord Quakers decided to do what made the most sense: share the electricity, of course.

“We aren’t a big church. A very small solar system would handle our needs. We just think it’s a shame that the roof would go to waste,” said Greg Heath, who chairs the solar committee for the Concord Friends Meeting, which is about to turn on its first group net metering project at its meetinghouse in Canterbury.

The process proved difficult more for legal than technical reasons, he said, and Concord Quakers hope its success “will inspire other churches, nonprofits and private homeowners to form their own groups.” The church has planned an open house for May 19 to share how it came about.

The meetinghouse, at the end of Oxbow Pond Road in Canterbury near the Muchyedo Banks Wildlife Management Area, was built eight years ago with solar panels in mind, Heath said. Its roof is aimed and pitched to maximize solar energy but it remained empty until photovoltaic panel prices fell to the point that an installation made sense.

“A number of members in the meeting have solar on their own house, so we’re generally familiar with the field. We kind of keep our ear to the ground on this sort of thing,” said Heath. It soon seemed that group net metering was the way to go.

Net metering is the regulatory system under which the owner of solar panels can sell excess power – such as on a sunny day when few appliances are running – back into the power grid. It can be used only by the owner of the panels, however, and debate about the effect of net metering on rate-payers who don’t have solar panels has led many states, including New Hampshire, to cut back on the amount that utilities have to pay for electricity sent to the grid.

Group net metering is a relatively new system designed in response to these issues, allowing multiple buildings to jointly own or get credit for the power from a single set of solar panels. There are hundreds of group net metering systems around the state, according to the PUC, but most involve multiple electric meters within a single building or commercial installation. Systems like that of the Concord Quakers, involving a non-profit, are very unusual, Heath said.

In net metering, groups can be linked via financial accounting rather than by actually sharing electrons. The other buildings don’t have to be directly connected to the panels.

In this case, they certainly aren’t. Three church members who want solar panels but whose homes are shaded or not oriented property signed up. Some live in Concord rather than Canterbury; the only constraint is that, like the meetinghouse, they had to be customers of Unitil. Group net metering cannot cross the boundaries of utility service areas.

The three homeowners did not help pay for the roughly $53,000 installation cost, which was covered by an investment from one member of the meetinghouse. As a result, the homes will get no financial benefit until the construction cost is paid off from the money made selling the panels’ power and related credits, which will probably take a decade.

After that, the owners of those homes will have free electricity for the life of the system, which should last at least 20 years.

Even without an immediate financial return there’s a psychological benefit, Heath said. “They know that it’s clean energy they’re using. That is a huge motivation for a whole lot of people – they don’t mind paying their electric bill, they just want it to be clean energy.”

Heath said the church had not been able to find a group net metering system in the area of the type they set up, which reflects the biggest obstacle to the project: Figuring out the legal structure.

“We learned how slick it works in other states, where the utility credits everybody’s bill and there’s very little bookkeeping involved. We thought that would be great, let’s do that – then we explored what it would need to do in New Hampshire,” he said.

The complication is that the group net metering was created for businesses and for-profit groups. Tax benefits and other aspects don’t apply to non-profits such as Concord Quakers. Heath said the first attorneys hired to look into the matter thought it couldn’t be done by a church, but the law firm of Rath, Young and Pignatelli took up the case for what he said was a low flat fee, partly to develop expertise in the matter.

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


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