Viewpoint: Local power generation, one home at a time

Monday, July 24, 2017 6:59PM

I went to the second meeting of the Mothers Out Front NH group on Monday, and someone said that they were concerned about the fast growth of residential solar systems because of the cost shift from homeowners with solar panels to other utility ratepayers. This is a fairly widely circulating statement right now, and especially popular with investor-owned utilities like Eversource. But investor-owned utilities are not consumer advocates. They are investor owned, and work entirely for their shareholders. If an investor-owned utility appears to do something good for ratepayers, it is because it is good for its shareholders as well. This has always been true, it’s just that ratepayer and shareholder interests used to generally be aligned: keep the customers happy, make a modest return, and keep the system stable. Now investor-owned utilities chase profits and their own growth; they are indifferent to ratepayers wishes that don’t support their goals, and communities have to fight them tooth and nail on issues we care about.

Residential solar projects are not bad for other ratepayers, but they do take demand away from company-owned projects. The investor-owned utility’s all-important ‘need’ for new supply projects goes away if its customers start to generate their own power. While each residential solar project is relatively small, the cumulative effect is making an impact in New Hampshire, and the potential is enormous. For example, solar projects go crazy sending power into the grid on sunny summer afternoons, coinciding perfectly with the summer peak demand and high fossil-fuel use for electricity generation across the region and country.

This got me restarted thinking about solar panels for my own home, and I am learning that solar panels are a very attractive option for regular homeowners, especially right now. The best-in-class technology is great, and renewed incentives make it quite affordable. Solar panels are maintenance-free, pay for themselves in half of their lifetime or less for a monthly payment roughly the same as my current utility payment, and return free energy to my home after that for at least another 12 to 25 years. All you need is a utility bill, a sunny roof in reasonable condition (ten plus years left is best) and a solar contractor.

So my husband and I are in the process of signing a solar contract before September 1st. We are considering a system that will put enough solar panels on a west-facing roof of our home to satisfy our entire annual electric demand, through net metering. With net metering, we use the power we need, sell excess power into the electrical grid for credits on our utility bill, and then draw on our credits during periods when we are not making energy. We have not decided whether to buy the system outright or finance it, but if we do the latter it is a fixed monthly amount set close to the utility bill it replaces, over 12 years at a financing rate of 3%, with no money down. So if you think utility costs are going to continue to go up, then this payment will at some point be lower than the utility bill you would be paying otherwise, and it will end after 12 years, delivering free energy after that for the life of the solar panels.

There are dozens of great contractors in New Hampshire, and I actually think it must be pretty standard for them all to help with the entire process, it is pretty complex. But if you can sign a contract before Sept. 1, you will be grandfathered for full net metering until 2040. Full net metering is one credit for one excess kWh produced, one for one. After September 1st the rules change slightly, I believe closer to 0.8 credits for one kWh excess generated, not bad, but over 20 years I am hoping that this decision to act now will be a good one.

The rule change is the utility’s attempt to make up for the alleged burden that the use of solar panels are placing on the other ratepayers. Never mind the real burdens of the alternatives, building a whole new massive transmission project through pristine forests in prime tourist locations for thousands of miles, all for environmentally-dubious large-scale hydro, and fracked gas pipelines, built against the wishes of community members to serve power hungry states to our south and energy hungry customers around the world. I and my contractors are local, and require no new infrastructure other than what I am paying for myself, including my new utility meter for which I continue to pay $13 per month.

If enough of us local homeowners use local contractors to build our own supply of energy, Eversource and other investor-owned interests will delay or even lose the precious ‘need’ for massive new power supply projects. There is nothing that will kill Northern Pass and fracked gas pipelines faster than a lack of need for their output. If we push them into the future indefinitely, it is the same as stopping them entirely.

There are other exciting details about current and potential benefits of installing residential solar system, like renewable energy credits, time-of-use metering and residential storage. This is indeed cool as well as completely doable for cost-conscious homeowners. I can’t wait to be generating power, monitoring the performance of my panels, counting my energy credits, receiving regular checks for renewable energy credits, and most importantly, eliminating my contribution to utility-generated global warming. Indeed If I have profits from excess generation I get to keep those, too. Residential solar is a great deal for regular homeowners now, whether you are a die hard environmentalist, or simply tired of your electric bill going up and up. Don’t rely on the utilities to tell you where your energy is coming from, generate your own clean power, for your own sake as well as our community, state and the planet.

Emily Manns lives in Peterborough.