Plymouth will soon be home to the state's first small solar panel arrays designed to help low-income families. The nonprofit behind the project hopes other towns will follow suit.
Solar Shares has raised more $115,000 for the arrays and plans to break ground on the first one, near the Common Man Inn, in the spring.
Sandra Jones co-directs the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative, which created Solar Shares. She says they plan to choose about 30 low-income families to share the renewable energy credits from their first three arrays. That will amount to about a $25 monthly savings.
"We like the idea that it's going to give access to solar energy for a population that really can't afford it,” Jones says. “It's also going to obviously help the environment ... and provide more local energy on the grid."
The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which serves residents in the area, is helping fund the project and will distribute the renewable energy credits the arrays generate.
Only about 500 of the utility’s 84,000 customers have installed solar arrays on their own, according to spokesman Seth Wheeler. He says solar pays off over time, but has a high up-front cost that puts it out of reach for many low-income families.
Sandra Jones hopes the Solar Shares concept can change that in New Hampshire.
"I think one of the misconceptions is that folks that can't afford solar aren't thinking about it, and it's not true," she says. "They're hearing about it, they're hearing about the savings from their neighbors, and they're the folks that need the energy savings the most."
Jones says the size of their first three arrays depends on future fundraising – they’re partway to their goal of at least $150,000.
She hopes blending the panels into community spaces and providing energy efficiency education along with the credits will drum up support and help spread their concept across the state.
"The model has kind of shifted towards that, versus just putting up solar and giving people credits, but [instead] making it a feel-good project on many fronts,” she says.
The array near Common Man will go on donated land off Route 3. Jones says it will double as a picnic area, and may include solar panels decorated with art by local students that shade the picnic tables.
Solar Shares will hold a meeting next month to discuss how to choose the families that will benefit from the arrays. Jones says they expect to pick families that express interest in solar and fall below about 200 percent of the poverty line.