DURHAM, N.H. — Construction is nearly finished on a $410,000 solar energy project that will power three town buildings and sharply reduce the town’s carbon footprint.
Best of all, the panels atop the Durham Public Library, the Churchill Rink and the Durham Police Department were installed at no cost to local taxpayers.
The town partnered on the project with ReVision Energy, a Maine company that has a large facility in Exeter. The company will own and operate the panels for at least the next six years. In the seventh year, the town has the option to buy that equipment for about 70 percent less than the installation price.
Meantime, the town will pay ReVision for any power the panels generate. That electricity will cost Durham no more than what it already pays for power.
“We won’t see power bills drop as a result of this installation for the next six years,” Durham town administrator Todd Selig said. “But the benefit is we are reducing our carbon footprint and relying on the sun for energy instead of fossil fuels.”
The project consists of a major installation at Churchill Rink on Old Piscataqua Road with 390 panels capable of generating 99 kW of electricity. The 20-panel police station project will produce about 5.5 kW and the 60 panels on the library will generate about 15 kW.
On its own, the Churchill rink project is one of the largest single installations in the Granite State, according to Steve Condon, a ReVision sales manager. The entire project, at 120 kW, ranks even higher.
Each solar installation is intended to produce most of the power for each respective buildings. The buildings also can tap into the standard electrical grid to supplement energy from the solar panels.
When the panels are producing more power than what’s needed, it goes back out into the grid. Excess power produced by each array is converted into credits that can be used to offset future electricity needs.
The ice rink, for instance, will produce much of its electricity during the summer when the rink isn’t operating, Condon said. But the credits built up during those months can be used in the winter when energy use is highest and solar power generation is at its lowest.
Selig estimates the solar panels will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 164,000 pounds a year, an amount he calls significant. They also advance the Town Council’s long-standing goal of promoting sustainability.
So how does the financing work?
Overcoming high upfront costs is a key challenge for both the solar industry and potential customers. In many cases, tax credits and other incentives available to offset those costs are not available to nonprofits or municipalities.
That’s where ReVision steps in. The partnership lets Durham install a solar array without the initial costs. ReVision adds a new customer and markets its services while claiming available tax credits that reduce overall price.
“There is no out-of-pocket cost for the solar installation,” Condon said. “There is no change in their budget, they pay for the energy at the same rate, and every time they make a payment to us, it is like they are paying down [the cost of the project].”
In the seventh year of the agreement, the town can buy the solar panels and equipment for $130,500. Based on an estimated electricity savings of $13,000 a year, Selig said it would take about a decade to recoup the investment. The panels are expected to last 40 years.
The town also has the option of continuing the current arrangement instead of buying the panels.
Kevin Gardner, chair of Durham’s Energy Committee, said the solar installation is a major milestone for the town’s sustainability goals. Until now, the town’s efforts have largely consisted of upgrading light fixtures, weatherization and energy-efficient retrofits to existing infrastructure.
“Even though it’s a big deal and even though it’s important, it’s just breaking the ice,” he said. “We need a lot more solar to meet the real objectives we have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Other solar initiatives are already in the works. The town is planning to install a solar wall at its wastewater treatment plant next year that will power a substantial part of the operation.
Two years ago, the town installed solar-powered parking meters in the downtown.
The solar panels installed on the library this fall are the only ones currently generating power. The rink and police station projects are nearly finished, and should start producing energy by the end of the year, Condon said.
Library director Tom Madden said he’s heard little feedback about the solar panels over the past several weeks despite intense interest in solar panels when the new library was announced.
Indeed, several library patrons said they hadn’t noticed the gleaming rooftop array until a reporter pointed it out.
That should change soon. A monitor showing how much power the panels are producing will be installed near the front entrance. That information already is available on the library’s website.
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