Enlarging New Hampshire’s solar systems – in the field and on the roof
New Hampshire has a reputation of being slow when it comes to the uptake of solar power. The goals have been set, it seems, but some of the state’s utilities appear not to be particularly interested in pursuing them. Net metering is allowed, but it is limited to systems that are much smaller than those in other states in the Northeast. That may be changing, however.
Just about three years ago, a new solar array was commissioned that set a New Hampshire record for capacity. That was the Moultonborough solar array, which has 8,000 panels on twelve acres. It has an AC capacity of 2.0 megawatts (MW). At the time that it started operating in December of 2017, it was the largest solar array in the state. The New Hampshire Electric Cooperative (NHEC) regarded it as an investment that would help it learn about how to deal with renewable energy in the distribution system. But the story did not end there, as we shall see.
The Moultonborough array did not hold the record long. In June of 2018, that record was surpassed by an array put up in Merrimack for Fidelity Investments. That array has a capacity of 3.1 MW, which covers 16% of the electricity needed for an office building with one half million square feet of floor area. The array fit into Fidelity’s 13-point sustainability plan.
Those two arrays are both ground-mounted. New Hampshire also has been seeing increasingly big rooftop solar arrays, and it happens that ReVision Energy is just now finishing the largest of these in Londonderry on the roof of a building owned by Bellavance Beverage Co. This array has DC capacity of 1.16 MW, and it is expected to be operating in December 2020.
These arrays have come at a time when solar photovoltaics (PV) are starting to grow very quickly. And the difference is getting magnified. The big and bigger are not being followed by something that is merely biggest. A new array NextEra Energy is building in Fitzwilliam does not represent stepwise growth from the current record of 3 MW to something slightly bigger. It is growing by making a broad jump from 3 MW to 30 MW.
It might be a good idea to look briefly at NextEra. Not all that many years ago, NextEra, a Florida utility, was best known to people in New Hampshire as the owner of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. It was also not all that long ago that the biggest publicly traded company on Earth was ExxonMobil.
Since that time, ExxonMobil has lost market value, as it lost money on oil and gas. But, NextEra has been investing heavily in renewable energy, and it has been gaining value rapidly. Now, NextEra’s market value has passed that of ExxonMobil. (Prices of each go up and down, so they can pass each other more than once.) In fact, NextEra owns PV arrays in 26 states.
NextEra has looked into a number of sites in the Northeast to build solar farms. After identifying the Fitzwilliam site as a place it wanted to build its Chinook Solar array, it found that ReVision Energy would be its best candidate to build it. And so, the project has moved forward. It will take up about 100 acres of land.
Chinook Solar is the first solar project in New Hampshire big enough to require approval by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee (SEC). The SEC reviewed the project for two days in a virtual meeting, during which it considered such questions as finances, engineering, environment, and aesthetics. They considered whether the project was in the public good, and how it would impact the region’s development. They made some modifications to the plan, particularly relating to protections for endangered species while the plant is under construction and to how the project will be decommissioned. Ultimately, the Chinook Solar project was given unanimous approval. It is to be under construction soon, and it is expected to be commissioned by the end of 2021.
Fitzwilliam is in Cheshire County, in the southwest corner of the state. The town and the county will see the benefit of new jobs during construction of the array, and they will see the ongoing benefits of increased revenues in the long term.
Chinook Solar will hardly be the last development of its size in New Hampshire. There are other large projects that are moving forward in development. They are not throwbacks to the old “big” arrays of 3 MW or less, either. They are big, comparable to the Chinook Solar project.
Also, it is not just solar PVs that are growing. We have early word of an improvement at the Moultonborough solar array. The site will have a large battery installed to help reduce the monthly demand peaks. An important part of the costs of the transmission system relates to the peak demand, so reducing that demand can cut costs for everyone who pays electric bills.
All things considered it would seem that New Hampshire may be catching up with other states in the Northeast. The pragmatic people of the state are not so in love with fossil fuels and their costs that they will find it hard to switch to cleaner renewable energy, when it is as cheap as it is.