Renewable energy projects scattered about the region are poised to begin – but not without some challenges.
Antrim Wind Energy has once again filed an application at the state level to build an industrial wind farm on the ridge line of Tuttle Hill and Willard Mountain in Antrim. After failing to gain approval the first time around, the company has come back with an amended plan aimed to address the visual impacts that caused the state to turn down the project last year.
Other renewable projects are also affected by state decisions: Several planned solar arrays around the region are paused or impacted by state-mandated net metering caps and a reduction to the Renewable Energy Fund, which funds grants for renewable energy projects.
Antrim Wind Energy will be taking a second turn in front of the state’s Site Evaluation Committee, seeking approval for its amended version of a wind farm for Tuttle Hill and Willard Mountain.
“We are very excited to be moving ahead with the Antrim Wind Energy project,” said Jack Kenworthy, CEO of Eolian Renewable Energy, Antrim Wind’s parent company. “This wind farm will help drive local economic development, increase the conservation of forestland and reduce CO2 emissions.”
A similar version of the same project has already been through the SEC process once. In 2012, Antrim Wind proposed to construct a slightly larger wind energy facility on the same site. That application was denied by the SEC, based on aesthetic impacts to sites like Gregg Lake and the Willard Pond Conservation Area.
Antrim Wind approached the SEC with an amended project: Nine turbines instead of ten, a shorter tower, and smaller turbines. Antrim Wind is also offering additional mitigation offers to conserve 100 acres of the surrounding area and a payment of $40,000 to improve recreation activities and aesthetics at the Gregg Lake Recreational Area, and a $100,000 donation to the New England Forestry Foundation to acquire new conservation lands. The SEC agreed that the new application was different enough to merit a new hearing process. It remains to be seen whether the differences are enough to overturn the committee’s previous decision.
The wind project has been a divisive one in town. It has the backing of town leadership, with the Select Board in favor of the project, but the general public has been more split. Two attempts to pass a large-scale wind zoning ordinance in town failed, with proponents of the project proclaiming them too strict, and its opponents that they were not strict enough.
Energy caps and rebate scalebacks
Utilities continue to near the state-mandated net metering cap which, when met, will prevent customers from selling excess renewable energy back to utility companies. And a drop in revenue for the Renewable Energy Fund has forced the N.H. Public Utilities Commission to scale back, or, in some cases, stop the rebates it offers residents and businesses.
Net metering allows customers to sell renewable energy they generate to a utility to offset the electricity they buy. If a homeowner, for instance, powers their home with solar panels, they can use the extra energy they generate on a sunny day to offset the electricity they buy from a utility at night.
When the state adopted net-metering, it limited the amount of electricity that customers could sell to utilities to 50 megawatts. Utilities share this cap, with Eversource Energy having the highest allotment at just over 36 megawatts. The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative was the first utility to reach its limit, with Liberty Utilities following. Eversource is approaching its limit, with projects that are online or in the queue to qualify for net metering. But, a flood of incomplete applications would put Eversource past this cap.
This program might see new life, however, after Gov. Maggie Hassan indicated in September she plans to explore raising the cap with lawmakers in the fall.
A decrease in revenue for the Renewable Energy Fund has forced PUC to scale back or, in some cases, stop the rebates it offers residents and businesses.
The Renewable Energy Fund pays for the state’s renewable energy rebate programs. Utilities who cannot generate a percentage of their electricity with renewable energy sources must pay into this fund, which then pays for the state’s rebate programs.
But the program only brought in $4.3 million in 2014. It was reported officials speculate an increased availability of new renewable energy credits contributed to driving down the fund’s balance this year.
The fallout from this loss are changes to the rebate programs themselves. The rebate program will reduce its rebates for residential solar or wind systems less than 10 kilowatts from $0.75 per watt to $0.5 per watt, and a maximum of $3,750 or 50 percent of the project’s cost to $2,500 or 30 percent of the project cost, whichever is less.
The PUC staff also recommended that the rebate program for projects from 100 kilowatts to 500 kilowatts be closed and no longer accept applications, with all waitlisted applications no longer considered on a waitlist and all waitlisted applications required to reapply once its reopened. However, the PUC’s intent is to reopen the program as soon as possible, said PUC Sustainability Director Karen Cramton. A technical session about this topic is scheduled for tomorrow.
But what effect will these changes have on current solar energy projects proposed around the region?
The biggest hit Peterborough experienced from all these changes is the stalled progress of the Monadnock Buying Collective, which Peterborough spearheaded. MBC is a consortium of towns whose goal is to combine to install their own solar arrays by net metering and power-purchase agreements. While MBC applied to build a one megawatt solar array in Peterborough, that dream can’t be realized if virtual net metering is not an option. Virtual net metering is the utility’s sale of a renewable energy to a specified source. It’s intrinsic in MBC because a utility company would sell electricity from the solar array to each town, most likely at a lower cost.
Yet, Peterborough is looking forward to having its solar array, the largest in the state, online by the end of October. The project can’t be turned online until Borrego Solar, the company who installed it, sells the operation to a larger renewable energy company.
Antrim, N.H. Solar Garden
A solar array planned for Antrim is unaffected by the caps and rebate cutbacks, having already been approved under past group metering rules, and having been awarded a $182,000 rebate from the Public Utilities Commission commercial and industrial rebate program in April.
Andrew Kellar, the founder of N.H. Solar Garden, a solar installer based in Stratham, said there were moments of insecurity as the state struggled to pass a budget. There was a possibility that the state could raid the fund slated for N.H. Solar Garden’s rebate. But the budget has now passed, and the fund is intact, leading Kellar to believe the PUC will move forward and give final approval on the release of the rebate for the Antrim project.
Depending on when that approval comes, and how early the snow flies this year, Kellar anticipates breaking ground on the new solar array late this fall. “It is ready to go, and we have our approvals at the local and state level. We could probably start right away, as soon as we get our final sign off from the PUC,” said Kellar.
The rebate amounts to about a quarter of the project’s overall cost to construct an array of 1,100 panels, which will produce about 368 kilowatts. The town of Antrim has contracted to purchase the power produced from the solar array at a cost of one cent per kilowatt hour less than they are paying now. That will save the town approximately $3,400 per year in electricity costs, based upon its current rate, in addition to receiving $8,000 per year in lease payments from N.H. Solar Garden to build its array on town owned land.
The town of Jaffrey is still waiting for the PUC to rule on the fate of its proposed solar project.
“If there is no grant, there is no solar project,” said Select Board chair Donald MacIsaac, of the town’s planned $2.6 million solar array, $1.1 million of which would be covered by a grant, if approved.
The town already has an agreement in place with Borrego Solar to build the project on the site of the old landfill. The solar array would be used to reduce costs to operate the municipal sewer system.
Francestown Solar Up
Yesterday was the final day to register for Francestown’s Solar Up program, and according to solar installer Chris Milner of Milhouse Enterprises, there were less signups than initially anticipated.
“There were about half as many signups as I expected, but I think many people were concerned with net metering and what was going on with the solar rebates,” said Milner.
All in all, eight residents signed up for projects, totaling 56 kilowatts of power.
Dublin School has town approval to build their proposed 375 kilowatt solar array, but is waiting on funding to be able to start construction.
Since the school isn’t eligible for a grant, according to Headmaster Brad Bates, the school is looking to third party organizations or people to fund the solar array, which is estimated to cost $1.2 million.
“We are still working to finance our project,” said Bates. “We are working with lawyers and others to build a package and then we will work to seek an investor.”
After getting approval from the Planning Board earlier in the month, Yankee Publishing is moving forward with construction on its 100-kilowatt solar array.
“We are looking at starting construction in the next two to three weeks,” said Yankee Publishing President Jamie Trowbridge. “We are working on the electrical engineering right now.”
Trowbridge says the goal is to have the array operational before the snow begins to fall. The array cost Yankee approximately $300,000, with $75,000 of that being covered by a N.H. Public Utilities Commission grant.
Reporters Benji Rosen and Nick Handy contributed to this report.
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