Why N.H. Lags on Major Solar Projects and How That Might Be Changing | New Hampshire Public Radio

Why N.H. Lags on Major Solar Projects and How That Might Be Changing

Jan 22, 2020

Solar array in Peterborough, NH.
Credit wikimedia commons

Will large-scale solar energy take off in New Hampshire? Although far behind its New England neighbors in producing solar energy, there are several major projects in the works that could significantly boost capacity here.  But these expansive installations can face challenges and opposition, even among renewable energy supporters. 

GUESTS:

  • Sam Evans-Brown - Host of NHPR's podcast, Outside/In , a show about the natural world and how we use it.  Every other Friday on Morning Edition Sam tracks down answers to questions about the environment and outdoors for our listeners in a segment called Ask Sam.
  • Emily Cole - Climate & Agriculture Program Manager for New England American Farmland Trust
  • Dan Weeks - Director of Market Development for ReVision Energy, a New Hampshire employee-owned solar company that works with homeowners, businesses, towns, and nonprofits.

 Also joining us: 

  • Stephanie Scherr - Director of ECHO Action NH for Environmental Justice, a group of environmental and climate activists. 
  • Aaron Svedlow -  President of North Light Energy, which is planning a large-scale solar array project on vacant industrial property in the southwestern area of Claremont. 

Transcript

  This is a machine-generated transcript and will contain errors.

Laura Knoy:
I'm Laura Knoy. and this is The Exchange. Well, Vermont and Massachusetts are often ranked among the country's top states for solar energy. It's been a different story in New Hampshire. Large scale solar projects have been slow to develop here for a variety of reasons, from state restrictions and how much energy can be sold onto the grid to local concerns about huge solar arrays. Heating up forest and farmland. But now, in some cases, new models of solar development are coming forward, aimed at assuaging those concerns by integrating principles of what's called smart solar siting. Today, on The Exchange, the future of large scale solar in New Hampshire.

Laura Knoy:
Joining us is Emily Cole, New England Climate and agriculture program manager for the American Farmland Trust. She joins us by Skype. Hi, Emily. Thank you for being here. Thanks for having me. And also with us in studio, Dan Weeks, director of market development for Revision Energy, a New Hampshire employee-owned solar company. And Dan, welcome back. Good to see you. Great to be here. Thanks. And also helping us out, Sam Evans-Brown, host of NHPR podcast Outside/In, our show about the natural world and how we use it. And Sam, thank you for your time, as always. So, Sam, what is the conversation right now in New Hampshire around large scale solar projects and how is that different from just a couple of years ago?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, what's really changed is that since 2010, we've seen dramatic declines in the cost of what it takes to install solar, which for the first time has started to attract truly large scale arrays to the Granite State, which previously, you know, if you look prior to 2010, had been limited to the parts of the country that had the best solar resource, the most sun shining on it. So down in the southwest, Arizona, Nevada, where you saw the first truly large scale megawatt and larger scale solar installations. And those are now migrating their way to places that that also have, you know, the characteristics of the of the New England market, high power prices. So you can get a good return on on a utility scale array, but also public policy supports, which you see in a lot of the New England states, which as we'll talk about later in the show, is that is what's driving a lot of this development.

Laura Knoy:
So it's become more economical. So when the price goes down, it's more interesting for companies to do this on a bigger scale.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And not only that, they're there have been some public policy changes, especially in southern New England, that are driving a lot of these large scale arrays.

Laura Knoy:
And I won't ask you definitely which states are really driving this, which companies are really driving this samba to you, too, Emily. How do you hear this conversation right now about large scale solar projects?

Emily Cole:
You know, at Americans Farmland Trust I think what we're hearing is concern over where it's located. Concern over loss of farmland, especially when New England has a New England division where we hope to make sure that we not only protect but increase our food production. And so there's a lot of land use conflict over farmland and the use of solar. They both have really great important, you know, uses behind them. And the conversation is, you know, which one is more important? Which one do we need more? You know, there are sort of alternate ways to think about it that I think the conversation needs to shift.

Emily Cole:
And in the same frame, you know, core forests are incredibly important to ecosystems in New Hampshire. You know, the White Mountains are just imagine that becoming a large solar field would make a lot of people probably blow steam out of their years.

Laura Knoy:
So as these projects possibly expand in New Hampshire and are already expanding around New England, you seem to be saying. Emily, whoa, let's inject the value of farmland and open space into this conversation.

Emily Cole:
Yes, exactly. Inject the value. And, you know, not necessarily think it's an either or. I think that there's a way to incorporate both in a manner that can achieve open space, green space, farmland, forest and get us moving towards renewable energy goal.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and definitely hinting towards what we're gonna talk about, smart solar siting. Emily, but Dan Weeks, how about you?

Dan Weeks:
I think the real thing driving this conversation, Sam made great points about the 80 percent decline in the price of solar. The demand for it, I think two words really come to mind. Climate crisis. I'm from an old New Hampshire family, a Republican family at a time when Republicans really led on environmental conservation and up north where our old family farm is where we've been for generations. I remember in the 80s, 90s as a kids, we'd see moose regularly, but I can't think of the last time that I or any member of our extended family has actually spotted, one of them up in Lancaster. And of course, that's because New Hampshire Fish and Game tell us that with rising winter temperatures five and a half degrees, as this station reported a few weeks ago, in my lifetime alone, we've seen a proliferation of ticks which attacked them, attach themselves to the moose by the tens of thousands sometimes and literally have killed off 70 plus percent of our young moose population as you've talked about on this program. And that is a direct result of the climate damage we're doing, which is driving communities around the state, Concord, right here where we're sitting today and in many others to say we are committed to a 100 percent clean energy. Not decades from now, but by 2030 or 40 or 50. And that is creating a real impetus for us to figure out a way to site clean energy, solar, but also wind and hydro in a way that can really meet those goals and address this climate crisis.

Laura Knoy:
So what's changed for you, Dan, just in the past couple of years, it sounds like, is the immediacy of what we see with climate, the projections by the United Nations that we don't have much time and we need to move more quickly than we have been here in New Hampshire.

Dan Weeks:
Absolutely. And we are unfortunately so far behind in this state. As you alluded to in the opening, we have yet to reach 1 percent solar penetration as a share of our electricity mix in New Hampshire, just to the south of here in mass there at 12 percent, even further along in Vermont. Maine is now moving forward by leaps and bounds with some significant changes in policy there. So we are lagging far behind and we're leaving on the table thousands of good middle-Class jobs, billions of dollars in local energy investment instead of sending billions out of state to import dirty energy sources. The opportunity is great and we're unfortunately pretty far behind.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I was looking at some of those numbers that you referenced in yesterday. And you know, the question keeps coming up, Sam Evans-Brown. Why is that? Vermont isn't any more sunny than New Hampshire. Massachusetts isn't any more sunny than New Hampshire. Why are they often ranked among the top 10 in terms of solar development?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, the answer there is public policy, right? Because we're all part of the same power market. So the price of electricity is largely the same in all of those different states, which means that really the dividing lines fall along public policy. And, you know, we'll we'll dig in a little more, I think, to the different sizes of different arrays and the different incentives that drive the installation of. so, you know, there's there's residential scale. That's what you see on rooftops. That's, you know, maybe 10 to 30 panels on a roof, up to acres and acres of solar panels, which is what we refer to as utility scale. And all of those depend on different financial mechanisms in order to pay for themselves. And in the six different states of New England, the financial regimes that govern what you know, how quickly you can make your money back is different state by state. And Vermont, for instance, has very generous incentives for residential scale. So we see quite a lot of it. Same thing with Massachusetts. Maine and New Hampshire have historically lagged. And so we see much, much less penetration at residential scale. You know, when we talk about large scale, which is really what the show I think today's is meant to focus on, things are a little more uniform across the across the region, though, once again, southern New England, that's driving things.

Laura Knoy:
And I hear you sort of wanting to talk about net metering, but it's complicated. And you and I have done a whole show on that topic. So just real quickly, since you mentioned public policy, Sam, and since the legislature is looking at net metering just this week. Can you give us a brief description of what net metering policy is and why it's so important for this conversation today about large scale solar?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Net metering was this really sort of cloojed together work-around for how to sell solar power onto the grid that was developed in really the late 70s, early 80s. And basically what it was, was if you wanted to sell solar power onto the grid, the easy way to do it that they came up with was just make it so that your electric meter rolls backwards when the solar power is being exported from your property out onto the grid. And that means that you're you're selling power at a 1 to 1 ratio, the same market price that you buy electricity at, you're selling it at the same rate. Which is a unique arrangement, because if you're a power plant, you get wholesale rates, you don't get retail rates. And over the years that policy of being able to roll your electric meter backwards has changed. We have better meters now, so you don't have to just roll it backwards. You can actually measure the amount that you're putting onto the grid and give it a different price. Today in New Hampshire, retail rates, if you're an Eversource customer, is like 18 cents for a kilowatt hour of electricity. If your net metering, you get about 12 cents. Now, if you were a utility scale solar plant selling at market rates, you'd be getting more like 4 cents. So it's dramatically less money if you're selling onto the open market. And that is why residential scale, that's the the real financial mechanism that's driving development at the residential scale. And utility scale, on the other hand, is driven by scale. Right? If you can build 20 acres of solar panels, you you can do it at a much cheaper price. So I was just looking up the numbers nationally at the average price for putting solar on your rooftop is about $2.70 cents per watt versus utility scales more like $1. So it's almost three times cheaper to install at a utility scale.

Laura Knoy:
So now we're talking real money.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Exactly. Which is why these big these big projects are coming to New Hampshire.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I'm guessing net metering will come up again in our conversation. And as I said, you and I, Sam, have done many shows on this topic before, but, Emily, I want to bring you in to also this round of questions about how the different New England states compare. I'd like your thoughts on that.

Emily Cole:
Well, you know, it's interesting. We have seen a big push in Maine recently with the changeover in the governor and the executive offices. And we've seen a real push and understanding that there really needs to be sort of a abuckshot approach at trying to meet some of these solar goals. So it's not just about utility scale. You know, it's not just about trying to get on the roof. It's really trying to find the best way to approach, several levels of solar, including finding ways to put it on the ground in a manner that isn't going to interfere with, you know, really Maine's love of their farmland and their forest land. In Massachusetts, they've got the SMART program and there's been similar pushes to try to encourage things like dual use, which is raised solar panels so that you can actually continue if it's farmland, you can continue farming underneath. If it's pasture, you can continue having your animals graze underneath. And so there is, you know, a pretty broad spectrum in terms of the value put on that state by state with Massachusetts giving currently a 6 cent adder to dual use projects that are approved for their SMART program. And so I think that programs like that and incentives to try to be really creative and thoughtful about where you place the solar on the ground, because we need a significant swath of ground, you know, New England wide.

Emily Cole:
We can't put it all on our roofs and all on our brownfields. We just don't have enough. So if we can be really creative and really support some of this alternative siting, the smart siting like Massachusetts is trying to do. And Maine is looking at. I think that other states like New Hampshire, and in other states like Rhode Island, which is also sort of behind in, I'd say, some of their policies and supporting this alternate and smart siting. I think that those types of interesting supportive incentives are something to look at in each state in New England to see if we can improve where it goes to actually start meeting are our total goals. Because, you know, New Hampshire is, I think, in terms of like in our energy goal. You know, it's number four in New England. So it's not really a large energy need and so it is achievable without really large scale loss of land. And it's also achievable if we really are creative with where we put it.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I like the image of a cow grazing underneath a solar panel. Maybe we'll talk about that a little bit more, but go ahead, Dan Weeks. I can see you wanna jump in.

Dan Weeks:
Yeah, I just wanted to go back for a moment to the net metering discussion, which is a really important step toward the kinds of large scale projects that are the main topic of the show. I think. Sam, well-described the two kind of extremes. You have residential scale, a handful of panels on a roof and then utility scale taking up many acres. What the state has been grappling with - and I spent much of the day yesterday at the State House going back over some familiar debates on net metering - is looking at an intermediate step. So Sam described residential sale where that power is worth about 12 cents per kilowatt hour compared to a retail rate of about 18. And then utility scale where it's actually more like three cents rather than four cents at average wholesale rates in the middle we have currently a provision for systems, smaller commercial systems, whether on rooftops or on ground, which get right about in between that retail, the 12 cent for residential and the 3 cent for utility scale at about 8 cents per kilowatt hour. And that's the default supply rate only. None of the additional charges that the utility puts on. And the state's been grappling for some years now with whether we cap those, those roughly eight cent per kilowatt hour projects on landfills or other relatively developed parts of a town, whether we cap them at one way megawatt or allow them to go up to 5 megawatts.

Laura Knoy:
I remember that was the debate that the governor wanted a cap of one. A lot of solar advocates wanted to raise it to five, saying this would really open the doors to more solar development here in New Hampshire. You're talking about kind of a middle ground, more solar development for these areas that are, you know, brownfields, sort of crummy leftover, you know, places that nobody uses anymore.

Dan Weeks:
And it was a lot more than solar advocates arguing for it. You had a number of Republicans join virtually all the Democrats in just a few votes short of an override for two years in a row now. A number of Republicans did turn, unfortunately, at the end. But needless to say, we've had dozens of communities push for putting those wasted lands, those landfills, those brownfields to good use and to be able to get that kind of middle level of power without any cost shifting to other consumers and thereby offset municipal load and add to the financial bottom line of towns that are pretty cash strapped.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, there are lot of cities and towns that are really interested in doing that. And we'll talk a little bit later about some of the many projects that are going on or being proposed in communities around the state. But let's bring our listeners into this. And today, we're talking about large scale solar and the prospects for it here in this state, we've talked about net metering. We've talked about rooftop solar in other shows. So we're gonna really focus on what these projects are that we're seeing in various communities, what some of the parameters are, what the concerns are. Theo is calling in from Francis Town. Hi, Theo. You're on the air. Welcome.

Hi, Laura. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciated you guys talking about the impact on farms and farmland and the goal of food security. I wanted to point out I grew up on a small family farm in southern New Hampshire in Wilton, and small family farms are really struggling. It's always hard to make that work economically, especially in New Hampshire, New England. So I think it's what we should look at it less as a conflict and more as an opportunity on farmers and farms and install solar arrays, especially in a way that doesn't interfere with our ability to farm. And we have a real opportunity for these farmers to earn additional revenue and to really make these farms work and keep those farms in place and not lose them to development.

Laura Knoy:
Theo, it's great to hear from you and Emily, that's for you. Go ahead.

Emily Cole:
That is such a great point and something that is so very important, Theo, to American Farmland Trust. We absolutely see this as an opportunity because our small farms are struggling financially. You know, climate change is an issue. It's not just an issue, but, you know, it's that we need to solve with clean energy. Our farms are struggling more and more because of the impact of climate change, because of the threat of loss of production to pests, to temperature swings, to flooding. And so there is a real risk of losing Atlanta permanent development to housing and commercial sites. When we install solar correctly on farmland, we can actually still have that as land. We can put it on places where you have unproductive field. We can put it on marginal land. We can have it at dual use. But it is absolutely an opportunity if we smart it slightly and we'll be left of a conflict if we do it that way.

Laura Knoy:
Theo, thank you so much for calling in. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
Today, why large scale solar has been slow to develop in New Hampshire. With us now on the phone is Stephanie Scherr, director of Echo ActionNH, a group of community leaders, environmental and climate activists promoting clean and renewable energy. What did you want New Hampshire cities and towns to think about as they consider large scale solar projects? There are a lot of projects on the table around the state.

Stephanie Scherr:
So one are the things that really got Fitzwilliam mobilized with the threat of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the 36 inch fracked gas pipeline that would have gone through a lot of southern New Hampshire, including our town, through eminent domain, it was taking parts of farms in people's homes. It threatened aquifers, wetlands, and even it was going to go right next to schools. And so there were a lot of concerns about that. When that was withdrawn in 2016, we didn't stop being concerned because Liberty Utilities, who had been working with them, with Kinder Morgan, has continued to press for fracked gas expansion throughout New Hampshire.

Laura Knoy:
But what about solar? Stephanie?

Stephanie Scherr:
Yeah, so so that's that's what we're really excited about, is that we now have this new option and the option has opened up Solarize Monadnock, which had a lot more residential. And now this great new large solar array that's coming to Fitzwilliam. So the only real concerns the community has had is about wildlife because there is fencing around it. There's some breaks where wildlife can get through, but we're concerned about that. People are concerned about noise, even though we've been assured that noise isn't an issue. There have been some noise concerns with other electrical projects. And the biggest question that I'm constantly asked is the energy for surface, where residents are excited about this, that they want to know, is there the energy for us? And the answer is yes, it is because it's going into the grid and we all share the energy that does go into the grid. So it's it's a really nice opportunity for us to put that, you know, that clean energy into the grid, to be a part of that and to help improve the RPFs for New Hampshire.

Laura Knoy:
The renewable portfolio standard. What about the Fitzwilliam projects cutting of, I read, 100 acres of trees? One resident, Stephanie, said he was pretty upset about this. He loves going out into the woods to walk and hunt. What are your thoughts there?

Stephanie Scherr:
Yes. So the person who owns the land actually cleared it. He logged all of the land before this project was approved. It is currently with the SEC. And so many residents felt that although that's that person's right to clear so many acres of land before the project was approved was a concern because with climate change, we want to sequester as much of that carbon as we can, which is in the trees. And so there's a loss there, which also can include erosion and habitat for wildlife. So there was a concern about that. But it's not something that we have control over at this time.

Laura Knoy:
And since you're talking about the Fitzwilliam project, Stephanie, I did want to let listeners know that we asked the developer of that project NextEra to participate in our conversation, but they said they were unable to do so. So I want to let listeners know we did give them the opportunity. I received an email, Stephanie, that I'd like to share with you from a listener, Jean, talking about this project. Jean says, It seems that we should work towards utilizing previously cleared surfaces such as residential and commercial rooftops, old landfills, abandoned lots fields and other open areas for solar energy before we start removing trees from massive solar farms such as the Chinook project. Jean says, are we forgetting the important role that trees play in reducing carbon in the atmosphere? Also, project of this size can't help it alter the environment, with tree roots to absorb water runoff patterns would change. Jean says wildlife habitat will also shift, creating problems as deer and moose lose acres of shelter. She mentions foxes, coyotes and other predators will encounter fenced obstacles around their hunting grounds, where rodents and other small prey were once kept in check. So this is really looking at this project with a broad ecosystem perspective. And Stephanie would love to hear from you on that. Your thoughts on what Jean contributes.

Stephanie Scherr:
Yeah, thank you for asking. So just this week, we had a meeting in Fitzwilliam with the Site Evaluation Committee, and these are things that the community has bringing up there. They're concerned about that wildlife habitat. After we were threatened by a pipeline, we did a full wetland assessment in Fitzwilliam and we actually designated some of our wetlands as prime. And so we were definitely concerned about those same. things. Yes, it would definitely be more effective if we could be able to put that on surfaces. We have a historic district in Fitzwilliam as most of our towns do. Some towns do restrict whether or not you can put solar on historic homes, depending on on how that town looks at what they allow.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's interesting. Yeah, go ahead.

Stephanie Scherr:
But parking lot and there are certainly enough stores in some of our main centers that are not having solar on the roof. There are a lot of places that we can be siting solar that we're not. And I think that what's happening and this is not to pick on an NextEra, but definitely they're looking for, you know, the easiest route. And if somebody is going to profit, they're going to have the ability to clear that land to make a profit. Sometimes that's an easier route than trying to get all that permitting through and to use smaller sites. It'll be in segments rather than in one large array.

Laura Knoy:
Well, one last question for you, Stephanie. And I really appreciate your time. I know you sort of ducked out of a classroom to talk to us today. No, they're actually right here listening in. Oh, awesome. OK. Well, it's always good to have students listening. That's wonderful. As somebody who cares about the environment deeply, as you clearly do, how do you weigh the clean energy benefits of solar versus some of these other items that we're talking about, disruptions to ecosystems and, you know, animal, you know, animal habitat and animal habits of hunting and mating and hibernating and so forth.

Stephanie Scherr:
So I was at the state house the other day and we were actually talking with several state reps and having this discussion. And I think from all and many people are concerned about these things. And we do know that whatever energy choice you choose, there's going to be some kind of a tradeoff. There's gonna be some things that you're going to have to give up or there'll be some kind of an impact. And really, we're looking at the emissions mostly at this point. Now, again, kind of a fossil fuel like gas is going to increase our emissions and we don't want to do that. So we're not saying there's no impact from solar or even from hydro. But if we are going to move to renewable energy, we're going to have to make those choices. New Hampshire is looking at right now that a huge offshore wind farm, which would be a great benefit for us. There's just so much wind in the Gulf of Maine that we can benefit from, but we haven't done that yet, unfortunately. Governor Sununu, you did approve a task force to look into that, which will bring New Hampshire up to where a lot of the other is for state. So they're already ahead of the process. So we know there's going to be a tradeoff. So in the Gulf of Maine, we can be looking at, you know, migration routes and other wildlife impacts. And certainly fishermen and fisher women are going to be concerned about that as well.

Laura Knoy:
Sure. Well, Stephanie, we'll talk to you again. Very interesting. Thank you very much. Thank you. That's Stephanie Scherr, director of Echo ActionNH, a group of community leaders, environmental and climate activists promoting clean and renewable energy. And Emily Cole, Sam Evans-Brown, Dan Weeks. Lots to unpack there. And one of the biggest points that we talked about there was Stephanie, Sam, is the idea that we don't need to be cutting forests and farms and so forth. As our emailer Jean said, why can't we do this in brownfields and parking lots here in Concord, we have this giant mall that's half empty. And so, you know, couldn't we just put solar panels on the roof of the giant mall that people are shopping at anymore?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah. Well, so the answer to that question is that that is all happening. Right. So there's there's a New Hampshire based company called Granite Apollo that's developing brownfields, their so-called brownfields to bright fields, I think is the term that I've seen thrown around. Where you take land that is that is contaminated. And as part of the cleanup, you put you put solar on top of it. We are also seeing, as Dan can talk about to my left here in a moment, a lot of commercial scale. So he's sort of medium sized solar arrays that are put on these large flat roofs of shopping malls and, you know, athletic facilities at schools. And we're seeing we are seeing now for the first time these utility scale, large scale projects that are put on green fields. So land that that is privately owned. The private land owner says that they want to to extract some sort of monetary value from it. And the choice that they make is to put up solar. And so the question is, are you going to disallow that land use? Because the reason the reason it's happening is a financial one. We've talked about how utility scale, the more the the bigger the projects, the the the more your economy of scale, the cheaper the power price, which Governor Sununu in particular has prioritized as driving down rates. So if you do disallow that type of project, you're going to be pushing things towards a more expensive type of project, one that does rely on structures like net metering and, you know, state rebates and the like. So that is another type of tradeoff. There's not just wildlife tradeoffs, there's also financial ones as well.

Laura Knoy:
Dan, what kind of siting is your company Revision Energy doing?

Dan Weeks:
Yeah. So we're fundamentally a construction company and I love getting out in the field. More than half of our 280 co owners are electricians or apprentices, becoming electricians, building these systems. And I love just asking them every question I can think of about how we are designing a particularly a ground mounted array in a way that really respects the natural environment and achieves the multiple goals that are being expressed here.

Laura Knoy:
So you do put some arrays on the ground. You're not all all rooftop on shopping malls and car dealerships.

Dan Weeks:
We do indeed. We've done thousands of rooftop systems in New Hampshire from small residential to a lot of public schools, soup kitchens, even resident owned communities, mobile home communities. And then we've done a number of ground mounts for cities and towns, not these huge systems, although we're getting a lot of interest. I probably get a call a week from somebody who has a farm and wants to explore how they can be more sustainable, to the point that Theo raised when he called in, by allocating a portion of their land for solar, for instance. But when I'm on site and you know, we're putting up a fence to surround a larger solar array. Whenever we can, we avoid the fences by doing a meshing along the back of the panels so that the higher voltage electrical components are protected and nobody's going to get shocked. So we can often do without a fence at all. And then the animals are just free to move in and out. When we do have to put a fence on, we'll often reserve the bottom six inches or so. We won't bring that fence all the way to the ground. So most of the animals that are using that habitat can actually come in and out. I was recently up at Lebanon where we did a mobile home community, a small ground mount. It's a pollinator habitat around those solar panels. We've got an array of different wildflowers growing. Bees are busy doing their job. And we know that they've also been challenged by the by the climate damage that we've been doing. And they create such an important service to our food systems. And so we're finding ways to preserve pollinator habitats, to allow particularly smaller animals to move in and out freely. We know that the impervious surface of the solar rays is actually a very tiny percentage of the land area that we're talking about because the water does immediately go into the ground. And if we plant the right kinds of grasses, it will do the kind of ecosystem services that are so important.

Laura Knoy:
So. Well, that's interesting. Yeah. I want to ask you about that. And just for listeners who might not know impervious surface ecosystem services, not quite sure what that is. Dan, just explain that in more layperson terms, what an impervious surfaces and why that's so important to mitigate with these solar panels. Because some people say, hey, these things are flat and the water just rushes off and then it can rush into the stream or the lake and cause water contamination. But you're saying there are ways to do it smartly?

Dan Weeks:
Yeah. I mean, a great example was, again, right here in Concord, where a project a couple of years ago was actually stopped by the local zoning process because it was treated as if it was a paved parking lot. Essentially, they took the surface area of all the panels and imagine that they were laid flat on the ground and that no water could get through. In reality, we space every row of solar about 20 to 25 feet apart. So most of the area in the solar footprint is actually just grass, whatever was there before. And when water does hit the panels, which are tempered glass, there's no contaminants that are mixing with the water. It simply runs off the panels and directly into the ground. And we make an effort every time to preserve ground conditions. We go through an extensive permitting process with New Hampshire D.E.S., get alteration of terrain permits when necessary to ensure that we're not creating erosion issues, that the water is doing just what it's supposed to do. Very much the same thing that it did before.

Laura Knoy:
Really interesting. And got an email from Marcia in Plymouth who says, thank you for the show. No one has mentioned putting solar projects on parking lots. I have seen them in the UK and a few U.S. college campuses using what is essentially a blight on the landscape as a source of energy can mitigate some of the concerns you've been discussing. What might I be missing? Marcia, thank you for the email. And Emily, if you want to jump in on what we're talking about here, this kind of lines up with what you've been promoting, which is smart siting.

Emily Cole:
Absolutely. You know, absolutely. If we could put solar just on all of the rooftops, that is something that would be, you know, just wonderful, wonderful. Preserve all of the soil and all of the force that we can't, unfortunately. That is an expensive route. There's a lot of infrastructure that might not actually be solar rooftop ready. And it is expensive to put solar. I mean, sometimes people also call that dual use solar on the parking lot. You know, you got shade covered it a little bit cooler. You have solar. We, you know, would love for more of that to happen. It is expensive. It is one of the avenues that should continue to be explored. But what we are really looking at and there's a partnership AFP is working with Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Law School, both Solar and Acadia Center are looking at what are some of the best practices we're seeing across New England for where the solar is going that we can really put together and then try to share with all of the states in our region can move towards the smart solar siting concept. It includes supporting rooftop, where we can support rooftop, you know, trying to think about policies that incentivize and increase the payment on solar that it's put in either on parking lots with, you know, an increase payment or solar that is put in a manner in the ground that is more ecologically friendly or farm friendly. That does cost more for the developer. If we can find these policies that really support that type of fighting, you know, best use of the land that's already disturbed first, you know, as much rooftop as we can get as well. And then if it has to go on our green space, which when you look at the numbers, it's going to have to go on green space. There's a way to fight it. That allows continued farm use, continued food production, continued, you know, ecosystem services, continued carbon sequestration, whether it's forest or farmland or park, there's a way to do it either facing or with best practices. You know, Dan mentioned, you know, about groundcover. It's about avoiding compaction of the soil. When you have the solar in the ground, you can actually still have that land be a natural climate solution underneath the solar panel. It will continue to sequester carbon under it.

Laura Knoy:
You can't just slap it up quickly, though, and say, bang, bang, boom, you're done. You need to be a little bit more mindful and planful of of how you work with the soil and the plants that provide those services that both you and Dan described. Let's take another call. This is Tim in Mt. Vernon. Hi, Tim. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. So either from listening to the conversation that we are surrounded, our neighboring states are developing solar power, at a far more larger scale than we are. And the fact that they're doing so tells me that obviously financially the development of solar power is is something that's viable economically. So my question for the guests is: What is holding back the development of solar power in New Hampshire? Is it a political issue? Do we need to change our political leadership or is it the environmental concerns and the not in my backyard concerns or a combination of the two? Because we can talk all day long about the aspects of solar power, but if we don't discuss why solar power is not being developed in our state, then it's kind of all a moot point.

Laura Knoy:
Right. And that's we started out asking that question. So let's tackle it again. I really appreciate you calling in, Tim.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, I'm going to sound a little bit like a broken record here, but the answer is really public policy and the finances. Right. So so if you are a. If you have a whole bunch of money and you're looking to put it somewhere. The question you were asking yourself as a manager of that money is what is the return I'm going to get on this. And there might be institutions like universities and schools and towns that are okay with a 20 year payback period. But big financial folks are, you know, like people with a lot of money are looking for a faster payback than that. And so in the states where there are more aggressive public policy supports that that make it so these products can payback faster, like in southern New England, where they they're they're putting money on the table for this kind of stuff. That's where it's getting built.

Laura Knoy:
And in a moment, we'll talk with the developer of a large scale project in Claremont, New Hampshire. This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. This hour: Why New Hampshire has so little large scale solar compared to our neighbors, especially in Vermont and Massachusetts. With us now on the line is Aaron Svedlow, though. He's president of North Light Energy, which has a proposed 10 megawatt solar array on vacant industrial property in Claremont. And Aaron, great to have you. So just describe where this project is going to be because we talked a lot this hour about siting and some of the concerns that, you know, just sort of mowing over grasslands or cutting down forests and putting in a large solar array is not maybe the first option that communities want to consider. So where is your project proposed to be?

Aaron Svedlow:
So our projects in Claremont will be on some property that is zoned industrial primarily and is adjacent to some existing industrial uses. It has been previously impacted by timber harvesting, a fairly aggressive timber harvesting and is slated for future development. Other industrial uses.

Laura Knoy:
So it's not a brownfield like a contaminated site as it is designee by the EPA.

Aaron Svedlow:
No, it's not a brownfield, but we do have projects elsewhere in New England that we've built on previously impacted properties and aren't necessarily brownfield. So thinking about things like former sand and gravel mines, for example.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. So what are the environmental considerations that your company is taking into account with this project that you have proposed in Claremont?

Aaron Svedlow:
So we look at all the typical things that most development look at, wetlands, impacts to erosion and sedimentation from the insulation of the facility as well as wildlife. And, you know, when you think about saw as a land use, typically the impacts are quite a bit lower than some other alternative land uses. And our projects are temporary. So the Clairemont facility will need to be removed after its useful life.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's interesting. Temporary. So how temporary is temporary?

Aaron Svedlow:
Well, temporary is temporary. In terms of about 20, 25 years, potentially a little bit longer. But compare that to commercial and residential development, which is which is usually not temporary at all.

Laura Knoy:
You know, we've done a lot of shows over the years, Aaron, on alternative energy. You know, hydro and wind and solar. And I have heard from some people who work for these companies who say when it comes to alternative energy, New Hampshire is tough. The siting is tough. This often community opposition, as somebody who works around New England, I'm just curious what your thoughts are about the political or cultural climate for alternative energy projects here in the Granite State.

Aaron Svedlow:
Sure, every state's a little bit different and the regulatory process really drives how easy or difficult the project is and ultimately the viability of that project. You know, New Hampshire is a state with strong local control, and that means that zoning and ordinances vary town by town. So you may have a favorable climate in one town and maybe less favorable elsewhere. There is a threshold at which you trigger a state regulatory review which can provide some more consistency.

Aaron Svedlow:
Yeah, I was just gonna say we've had a lot of positive responses to our solar projects, especially if they're sited properly. You know we can do a lot of things to speed the facility. Visual impact is usually one of the biggest, biggest complaints we have with our facility. So screening is important.

Laura Knoy:
Screening now, what does that mean, Erin?

Aaron Svedlow:
Landscaping typically, we try not to do big fences, but we can do some nice landscaping with with native plants.

Laura Knoy:
We started out talking about why New Hampshire seems to be slower than its neighboring states in New England when it comes to large scale solar. We just touched on it again. We got a caller who wanted to really dig into that. What do you think, Aaron, is somebody who works in this field about why New Hampshire might be sort of behind the eight ball on this.

Aaron Svedlow:
State policy is important. So if you look at the renewable industry in other New England states, it's driven largely by state policy. And that's changing a little bit because energy prices are much more competitive with renewables now. But if you look at the solar industry in Maine, it's really exploded in the last year and a half because of some progressive state policies that were enacted by Governor Mills primarily.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Aaron, we will let you go. We'll keep track of that project in Claremont. Thank you very much. That's Aaron Svedlow, president of North Light Energy, which as we heard, has a proposal for a 10 watt, 10 megawatt solar array on vacant industrial property in Claremont. And all of you from Northampton, Bill is calling in. Hi, Bill. Go ahead. You're on the air.

Caller:
Well, good morning and thanks for taking my call. Quick question, we actually looked into putting solar rooftop on our house about a year ago, actually with Revision Energy. They were the best in the field at the time. It ended up not really being there, being marginally cost effective. But when I when I asked about roundabouts because we had a we have a significant portion of our property is in current use. Twelve acres of which about four is a field, actually. When I did my unofficial research, it looked like it would be not possible without taking my land out of current use. And then there was also the wetlands question where we you know, we have quite a few wetlands on our property as well, which even further eroded that usable line, I guess. Is there any consideration being looked into for how that would work with solar, where it's not really an invasive physical plant installation? I mean, I would love to put some panels out there, I just can't take our property out of current use to do it.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Bill, thank you for calling. Emily, going to throw that to you and just to let listeners know, current use is a separate form of taxation or different type of taxation for open space with the goal of keeping, you know, open space, open forests, farmlands and and so forth. This is a very interesting question that Bill asks. Emily, can you shed any light on that?

Emily Cole:
Yeah, absolutely. Current use is a really important topic. When we're thinking about farmers or land owners who are getting these, you know, different tax assessments because of how their land is developed. And so if we think about putting solar on a field, you know, there are ways where that open space or the farmland can still be actively open space or actively farmed. And so there should be consideration and there would have to be policy change, but there should be consideration for allowing that to remain in its current usestate. The other option is because this is a beneficial, you know, ultimately, right where we're putting solar, we're going to work towards renewable energy, that perhaps there's another option where if it's just a standard array, maybe there's no penalty for taking it out of current use. You don't have to pay the back taxes, which is sometimes what you need to do. And it would just be a change of status without the penalty. There are options to make solar more financially reasonable for the land owners as long as we are thinking about how is solar going into the land. Are we protecting the land? Are we doing this in a way that still achieves both? We still have our land. And we're getting those solar megawatts that we really need.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Bill, it's really interesting. And it's something I had not thought about how as a landowner, your current use status might be affected by putting in a solar array. Dan Weeks, Carol in Lyme has a similar question. She says, does the Upper Valley Land Trust or any land trust allow solar or wind farms on conservation land? So again, there's this question of we've got this open space, it's conservation land or it's land enrolled in current use. If we put solar energy panels on it, does that change it so much that we lose that status? So thank you, Carol, for the e-mail and Bill for the call.

Dan Weeks:
These are challenges. And I do want to thank Bill for taking a hard look at rooftop solar. We're always honored when when we can get out and provide designs. And if you've got some tree shading or the roof isn't quite south-facing it can be difficult financially, particularly in New Hampshire, less so in other states. But because of the incentives that cause dates. Right. Right. And I would hasten to add, we do collectively spend over $20 billion in tax incentives for fossil fuel generation. We spend much less on on solar and other clean energy incentives in this country, one way in which communities are trying to address this. And actually, the state has been contemplating a solar bill of rights, which other states like California, that have been leaders for years in this transition have adopted. And this would deal with, for instance, some historic districts or housing complexes where a homeowner association may have a couple of members who don't want to see any solar panels on their roof. They're not used to it where it would say unless it's doing really demonstrable harm to the community, you do have a right to put it on your roof when it comes to conservation lands. We have not yet found a case where land under conservation easement can be opened up for solar, although it's part of a set of discussions that are happening around. Should solar be treated like another shopping mall when we know its environmental impact is nothing like a shopping model? But I would hasten to add that we don't need to open up her conservation lands. We need only a fraction of 1 percent of our land in New Hampshire to meet all of our energy needs with solar. And it's never gonna be all solar. We've got plenty of wind potential offshore wind as well. We've got hydro already delivering power to the grid so we could get to 100 percent renewable. Imagine that future. All of our energy dollars staying in state, thousands of good middle class jobs here in New Hampshire to meet those needs with just a fraction of 1 percent of our land.

Laura Knoy:
Emily sent us an email. She says the ConVal School Board voted unanimously this week to support a solar project at our high school after two years of advocacy from local residents. Supporters started the project to raise local awareness and take action towards solving the climate crisis. But in addition, Emily says the solar project also met the school board's requirements that it has no cost to taxpayers and will return savings over the 25 year life of the project. Emily says the ConVal solar project faced early resistance from some board members until the unanimous vote was a welcome first goal achieved to raise awareness at the community and school board level and also engage students to advocate for their future. And Sam, I've got a list of some of the proposals that large scale solar projects on the table here in New Hampshire, some approved, some not. And there are some that are not, you know, companies that are going to build a large array in a field or on a rooftop. They're school districts and municipal centers and so forth. So talk about the local government interest in this and activity there.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, well, this has actually been another of the major innovations that has led to an explosion in the amount of solar that's being rolled out. And it's it was a financial innovation, which is there have been models that have been created that allow you sort of zero money down. Third party ownership. Someone else owns the panel. You're just leasing your roof space. For instance.

Solar City used to have that model here in New Hampshire.

Solar City, before they pulled out. And usually, usually that that means that the people who are the hosts of the panels, because they're not the owners in that case are actually capturing a little bit less of the value and more of the revenue from this from the generation of the power is going to the company that owns them. But it can be a useful model when it comes to schools or cities that aren't able to claim the federal tax credit. That is one of the large drivers of of, you know, one of the big subsidies that allows solar to be installed. So that financial model has has been a big part of why solar, these especially these medium sized arrays that go in in schools and towns, have started to roll out. And it's really it's really highlights the the broad diversity of the different types of of, you know, sort of gymnastics that users of have had to go through in order to make solar work for them. And a really interesting case is Fidelity Insurance here in New Hampshire has a three megawatt array, which is which is I think by by any definition, a utility scale array would power thousands of individual homes. But because there is enough electricity demand from their facility, it's entirely behind the meters. So they don't have to deal with any of the complicated financial business. They're just using it to offset electricity usage at their site. And so that means that that, you know, every every watt is sort of claiming the maximum value on the market, which they're able to do because they're a large user of power. And, you know, and then and then you have the complicated arrangement that is net metering. And so the full spectrum of these of these different ways that people finance these projects. t

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. So Fidelity is a large financial investment firm. Right. Based in southern New Hampshire.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I'm actually not sure if it's their headquarters, it probably is.

Laura Knoy:
But they've just said, let's put solar panels on our roof. Let's power ourselves.

Sam Evans-Brown:
It's actually in a field. They actually did have to clear some trees in order to put it up. They put up a fence. But but it didn't you know, it didn't rely on net metering and it didn't rely on, you know, a third party ownership model. It was able to just sort of be, you know, offsetting their other usage.

Laura Knoy:
Dan, you have some projects that are these municipal projects, right. That sort of occupy this middle ground that Sam describes. So go ahead.

Dan Weeks:
Yeah. And we really see that as the opportunity for New Hampshire to take several big steps in the coming years, even as these large utility scale projects will take years to develop. To the example that was raised by by Michelle, we've been really excited to have a community of impact investors. So folks who who have the ability to put up capital and are willing to make well below market returns to really see these kinds of solar energy endowments deployed to schools, to non-profits, soup kitchens, all sorts of institutions in our communities, and they share our climate mission. So they've come together through something called Revision Solar Impact Partners, families here in New Hampshire that are financing projects like the ConVal High School one, dozens of other schools and nonprofits and municipalities. And because New Hampshire doesn't have really any state incentives it's been necessary to find these mission aligned investors to put up the capital. And as Sam noted, there's no upfront cost to the host. They get below grid, below current cost, electricity from their roof. Green power from the roof instead of brown power from the grid, they realize immediate savings and then they can buy it out after just five years and generate free power for decades more to come.

Laura Knoy:
Last question for you, I think, Emily, what are you gonna be looking for in this new year? You know, it's not even February yet. Still January. In terms of what the legislature does here in New Hampshire or activity by individual towns or private entities, what are you going to be keeping track of, Emily?

Emily Cole:
I think we're looking for a few things. We're looking for actually how some of the local conservation districts and land trusts are approaching the smaller size arrays that farmers and conservation landowners are trying to cite because those entities are still conservation minded, that if they can find a way to feel comfortable with solar, then they've probably found something that we can look to for other examples across the state from taping with municipalities that are finding a way to balance protecting land and, you know, building renewable energy for our future. We're going to look to the smaller towns and smaller organizations that have found a solution and try to share those broader across the state.

Laura Knoy:
Some of the solutions that we've talked about at the local level, we've talked about those today. Emily, thank you very much for being with us. It was good to have you on the show. That's Emily Cole, New England Climate and agriculture program manager for the American Farmland Trust. Sam Evans-Brown. Thank you for helping us out. We appreciate it. Thank you. Sam Evans-Brown, host of NHPR's podcast Outside/In and Dan Weeks, director of Market Development for Revision Energy and New Hampshire employee owned solar company. This is The Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.