Spring is coming in the North Country. The Israel River, filled up by the recent snowmelt, runs heartily through downtown Lancaster, New Hampshire. Pedestrians in light sweaters and short sleeves stroll among the main street businesses, pausing in the sun to chat with their neighbors. Just half a mile up the road, newly constructed municipal solar arrays are enjoying the same sunlight, cranking out clean, local electricity to power Lancaster municipal operations.
Lancaster’s first solar projects went live in November 2016. The total capacity of the three array’s is relatively small, just 107 kilowatts (kW). That’s enough to mostly zero-out electricity costs for the transfer station, wastewater treatment at the lagoons, and some other municipal facilities on Water Street.
The Lancaster solar projects are unique in that they were constructed by town staff rather than a private solar company. “We did as much as we could ourselves,” says Ben Gaetjens-Oleson, Planning and Zoning Coordinator for the town. The town contracted with a local renewable energy nonprofit, PAREI, to assist in navigating utility connection agreements, state incentive programs, and procurement of panels, racking, inverters, and other hardware.
“Our guys from the Highway Department and Public Works who worked on it, they’re all really proud of it,” said Gaetjens-Oleson. “A bunch of them, after they finished our town projects, they went and got solar installed at home.”
The arrays were municipally funded through a bond approved in 2016. The town paid off the debt from the bond in 2017.
“I’ve been getting calls from Berlin, Twin Mountain, Franconia, Milan, all over, asking, ‘How’d you do it yourself? How’d you do the funding?’” said Gaetjens-Oleson. In April 2019 two other North Country municipalities, Berlin and Whitefield, issued Requests for Proposals soliciting bids to install municipal solar.
Gaetjens-Oleson says Lancaster has lots of potential to build more solar. He says the town hopes to expand the arrays at the wastewater lagoons and the transfer station, and potentially elsewhere, “once we finish up with the roads and some of our other infrastructure projects.”
The solar arrays are just one of the energy projects keeping Gaetjens-Oleson busy. Lancaster has squeezed out further energy savings by converting its streetlights to LED as well as much of the lighting in municipal buildings. The town also employs an Energy Advisor, John Ahern. Ahern provides public education services to help homeowners lower their energy costs by implementing energy efficiency measures such as whole home weatherization in partnership with Eversource and NHSaves. As a result of the program, home energy audits in Lancaster have tripled in the past year leading to more comfortable homes and lower home heating bills.
Many cities and towns across New Hampshire are upping the efficiency of their buildings and learning the ins and outs of solar with small and medium sized municipal projects like Lancaster’s. But for some towns, especially smaller ones with fewer staff, finding the time to secure NHSaves rebates for lighting and insulation projects can be difficult, let alone to build your own solar array. That’s why Clean Energy NH recently hired a new staff person based in the North Country to provide free assistance to municipalities seeking to identify and implement energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Please contact Melissa Elander at Melissa@cleanenergynh.org to learn more about the North Country Energy Circuit Rider Program.
Henry Herndon is Director of Local Energy Solutions for Clean Energy NH.