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Granite Geek: The Search For The Oldest Solar Panel in N.H.

Solar panels have been generating electricity in New Hampshire for decades. But how many from decades ago are still in use today? Granite Geek David Brooks has been searching for the oldest, continually-used solar panel, and he spoke to NHPR's Peter Biello about one possible contender. 

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

David, you wrote in the Concord Monitor today about the panels used by Ralph Jimenez and Linda Graham since roughly 1979 we think?

1979 they think. They didn't quite remember when he put it up.

Tell us the circumstances under which he installed these.

They were back-to-the- land folks and they moved to New Hampshire and they got a house off the grid in the woods. And it had no running water and they used candles and kerosene lights and they got a little tired of that. And then Jimmy Carter, well the oil crunch came the oil embargo came, and as part of the response President Jimmy Carter and Congress pushed through some tax breaks for solar panels. And all of a sudden this newfangled technology became more accessible.

And so they got a panel, about 42 watts. So this was pretty minimal stuff. But back then these panels were quite new. And they put it on their house in the woods and used it to run a few DC lights. They hooked it up to some old car batteries. One of the lights he got he said they’re actually the backup lights from a car because those are DC and used those as lighting for a while. And that was what they got and they stayed in the house for a number of years and slowly added exciting things like water from a 55 gallon tank on the roof. And all the time the solar panel was the only electricity they had.

And so many years later how are they working now?

He went out there and measured it. It was producing about a little over half of its rated power on a cloudy day when the panel had like three years of tree crud on it and it wasn't even oriented properly. So it’s probably doing 80 to 90 percent of its rated maximum still, after four decades.

And why is it important to find or celebrate these old, continually used solar panels?

Celebrate, I like that. That's exactly what we do. It’s awesome. It’s cool to find new stuff that is old. But there is a minor legitimate reason to do this. One of the questions about solar power, because it is a fairly new technology, is how long it will last. And that is important for making decisions about where to put it. It's important for financing really as much as anything. If the bank is going to give you  a 20 year loan on something, they've got to be sure it's going to last at least 20 years. And it's going to continue to operate in a financially viable way for 20 years. Well here's one that 40 years later is still doing fine.

And it's an old technology. Solar panels are much better than they were back then. So I think it's a real thumbs up for this for the fact that there are definite advantages to having technology with no moving parts. It’s going to last. And this one certainly has, and as I say, it has lasted longer than any other solar panel in New Hampshire.

So, now, a call out. If there's a listener out there who has a solar panel that's been in continuous use since before 1979, I guess they should contact you?

They can certainly contact me but I will require serious evidence here. You know, extreme claims require extreme evidence.

Like a photo of them installing the solar panels with a Nixon for President sign in the background?

Or bell bottoms. I’ll accept bell bottoms as well.

That's David Brooks. He's a reporter for The Concord Monitor and the writer who has been continually geeky longer than those solar panels have been in use. But, oddly, no one is keeping track of continuous geekiness at GraniteGeek.org.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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