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Solar plan is step forward for state

Big things are happening in Peterborough. By big, we mean 3.5 acres big. We mean 1 megawatt capacity big. And yes, we mean big money saved.

Most of all, though, we mean big-picture thinking.

In case you missed Tuesday’s front page story, the state’s Executive Council has approved a $1.2 million grant that will go to Borrego Solar of Lowell, Mass. The company would then use that grant to secure the remaining funding needed to build a $2.6 million solar project .

So what would Peterborough get?

If the project is built, the town would be able to power its wastewater treatment facility and other town properties at a rate of 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Compared to the town’s current rate of around 14 cents per kilowatt hour, that translates into between $400,000 and $800,000 saved over the course of the 20-year power purchase agreement, according to Peterborough officials.

And did we mention it’d be the largest solar project in a state where solar has barely made a dent in the overall energy mix.

This project faced a fair amount of opposition within the Executive Council from Chris Sununu, who contended that Peterborough could actually end up losing money if the electricity prices dip below the 8 cents per kilowatt hour rate set in the contract. Theoretically, that may be true. But realistically, a look at the numbers shows that would never happen.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, New Hampshire electricity rates in October 2013 were 16.73 cents per kilowatt/hour for residential, 13.38 cents for commercial and 11 cents for industrial. Combining all sectors, the rate was about 14.16 cents per kilowatt/hour. These figures are far higher than the 9 cent per kilowatt hour Sununu was referencing when making the case that Peterborough could lose money. But the town is currently paying a whole lot in distribution and connection fees, which means that 9 cents balloons up to 14 cents when all is said and done. For the power purchased in this 20-year contract, however, the town would not be paying those extra fees. So if Peterborough ever loses money from this deal, we’d all be jumping for joy at the unprecedented drop in energy prices.

What this deal does do is it helps classify Peterborough as a renewable energy-friendly town. More importantly, it could signal a shift in priorities for the state. New Hampshire has seriously lagged behind neighbors Vermont and Massachusetts in its solar ambition. New Hampshire had about 5.4 megawatts of solar installed across the entire state by the end of 2012, according to the most recent listing by the American Council on Renewable Energy. And in 2012, the state installed 2 megawatts of new projects. So by this measure, the 1 megawatt project planned in Peterborough is significant. But look at what Massachusetts has done. It’s quickly emerged as one of the leading solar markets. In 2012, it installed 133 megawatts of new projects, and in the process it has built a sizable solar industry within its state.

The one gripe we have about this project is that a grant funded by New Hampshire ratepayers is going to a company based in Massachusetts. Hopefully this project will help to build a more locally based solar industry. Once that happens, more investments are sure to come — and more of that money will stay within our region.

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