South Berwick Library Goes Solar!

November 25th, 2014 by Fred Greenhalgh

South Berwick is the latest Maine municipality we’ve had the pleasure to help go solar – joining a growing list of forward-thinking towns and cities (including Eliot, ME, York, ME Durham, NH, Freeport, ME, Windham, ME, Lincolnville, ME, Dayton, ME, Gorham, ME… and many others). Check out our website’s photo gallery for photos of more municipalities that have made solar investments.

Faced with the expiration of an ARRA-era grant, South Berwick needed solar installed… and fast! ReVision Energy was able to assist, designing, procuring, and installing a 38.88kw American-made Suniva solar energy array in under 3 months. This gorgeous grid-tied photovoltaic array will generate over 46,000 kWh/yr of clean electricity for 25+ years.

Bill Rogers of the Coruway Film Institute (who happens to live across the street from the library) shot this fun, upbeat video about the project, with interview with the Town Manager, Perry Ellsworth and Library Director, Karen Eger. The South Berwick Library’s transformation from an old church to a modern, energy efficient solar-powered learning center is complete! It will serve not only as a practical solar installation, but as an inspiration in the community. We were proud to be part of this fantastic project.

The Myth of Cheap Natural Gas

November 18th, 2014 by Fred Greenhalgh
Maine Solar Install Better than Natural Gas

This solar array will produce pollution-free electricity for 50 years, with minimal maintenance and freedom from price hikes.

Expanding New England’s natural gas infrastructure has been hailed as a panacea to our energy woes. We question whether New England’s energy problems are so easily solved. It is incredibly expensive (upwards of $1 million/mile) to build out natural gas infrastructure, and the amount of capacity required to make a substantial impact is well beyond what the private market will support. Many politicians are suggesting, instead, that the cost to build out gas infrastructure be passed on to electric ratepayers, with the idea that, long-term, the costs would be recouped through the neutralization of winter price spikes.

We – and we are not alone in this – find this logic flawed, and unlikely to actually resolve the long-term energy problems of Northern New England. In our opinion, it is inequitable to pass the cost of pipeline expansion (most of which will not even be in the state of Maine, and instead, benefit Massachusetts power generators) onto the people of Maine and New Hampshire, who are already contending with high costs of electricity.

Instead, we should accept the reality of our geography, and make infrastructure improvements that offset load and generate clean energy to provide lasting long-term savings and protect our environment. We need only look to our use of heating oil to see an example of how destructive it can be when we are dependent on a single energy source. While natural gas looks good today, its long-term availability, price and environmental record is highly suspect.

Yet, the sun continues to rise every morning without fail.

Supply and Demand

ReVision Energy’s phone has been ringing constantly over the last few weeks as news spreads about coming electricity price hikes in the Northeast – Unitil predicts a near doubling of the standard offer rate, as does Liberty Utilities and the New Hampshire Electric Co-op (PSNH’s customers are somewhat insulated from the hikes due to their ability to sell power from their aging coal power plants during winter months, but that is another story).

CMP business customers in Maine will seem similar price shocks, though residential consumers will be largely insulated from the price increases until March, when the standard offer rate is renegotiated. For affected utilities, a typical home consuming 500 kilowatt-hours per month will see an increase in the order of $37 per month (is it ironic that the Maine solar rebate was deemed “too expensive” when it would add $1 per year to a typical electric bills? Ah, but we digress).

To blame for these winter blues is competition between the power and heating sectors for natural gas. While natural gas is plentiful down in Pennsylvania (in fact reaching record supplies in October – see EIA), it becomes in short supply when moving through the distribution system that gets it up to Northern New England. By the time gas gets here, it is in high demand and soars in cost, as heating users (who have priority over supply) compete with electric generators for the fuel. In the depths of winter, gas is in such short supply that electric generators need to instead source significantly more expensive fuels such as petroleum and coal, leading to these painful winter price spikes.

Winter 2013 - high cost of natural gas

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times – A Story of Natural Gas

EIA energy data in ME, NH, and MA use 2011

In the last twenty years, New England’s energy mix (especially in Maine and Massachusetts) has converted significantly to natural gas, replacing dirtier petroleum plants and nearly all coal plants (exceptions being PSNH’s Schiller and Merrimack Stations). In Maine, the hydro and wind sector meets a large amount of our energy mix (40%), in New Hampshire, nuclear remains an important source (50%), and in Massachusetts the lion’s share of the state’s electricity (60%+) comes from natural gas (data from EIA).

That New England’s prices for natural gas are higher than anywhere else in the country does not necessarily make it less competitive, since the traditional alternatives – liquid fuels and coal – are worse.

But New England’s relationship with natural gas is starting to shift as the transition which has already happened in the electricity generation sector (liquid fuels to gas) is starting to occur in the area of home heating.

In Massachusetts, nearly half of all homes are heated with natural gas, in contrast to Maine, where roughly 5% of homes use natural gas (and fuel oil accounts for nearly 70%). However, the use of natural gas in Maine and New Hampshire is increasing rapidly, and the real problem occurs in the height of winter when extreme cold leaves natural gas heating consumers competing with generation plants for a limited natural gas resource. In the worst cases, extreme scarcity leads New England’s power generators being forced to consume alternate (and more expensive) fuels such as fuel oil, as was needed on 20 days during the winter 2013-14.

OK, So Why Not Just Build More Pipeline?

Traditionally, natural gas pipeline expenditures have been financed by long-term contracts secured by gas local distribution companies (LDCs) which are a simple private market arrangement; one party agrees to make a long-term commitment to purchase capacity at an agreed-upon rate, and another party then funds the project.

Because the LDCs have pre-paid access to capacity, they get preferred access to the (limited) natural gas supply, whereas utility companies (who burn gas for electricity) have to purchase it at ‘spot’ rates set on a day-ahead basis. The spot price is dictated by available capacity left over from the heating sector, so, when the capacity left over gets scarce, the price goes up.

Utility companies are prohibited from entering into the same long-term contracts that LDCs enter into, and here enters the alternative proposal from the New England governors and ISO-NE (the operator of New England’s power grid) that a new way of funding natural gas pipeline – with public funds – be established.

Maine made headway on this front this past summer when its legislature passed LD 1187, An Act To Create the Maine Energy Cost Reduction Authority, which authorized the creation of a new state entity which would have bonding authority and the ability to enter into long-term natural gas contracts.

We find it worth noting that in October, 2014, the staff of Maine’s PUC concluded that Maine electric ratepayers “shouldn’t be charged up to $75 million a year to help pay for natural gas pipeline expansion in New England … because cost would exceed the potential benefits.”

Influencers in the energy space appear to agree with this conclusion. Power Options, the leading energy buying consortium in Massachusetts, concluded that the ISO-NE proposed tariff-design “is not designed in a fair or transparent manner” (See: An Expedient Solution to New England’s Natural Gas Constraints).

In other words, plenty of unbiased energy sector analysts find the proposed public financing of natural gas infrastructure unwarranted from a pure cost/benefit point of view. We agree, especially as the LePage administration has said it will not “pick winners and losers” (Bangor Daily News). We find the idea of subsidizing natural gas pipelines with ratepayer money a pretty clear example of picking winners.

The Fundamentals of Natural Gas

So let’s assume for a moment that Maine and New Hampshire did invest hundreds of millions of dollars raised on the backs of ratepayers to upgrade our natural gas infrastructure. Would that solve all our problems in the long term? To answer this question, let’s look at what is really happening in the natural gas boom.

Carl Pope makes a compelling case for how domestically-produced oil and gas could be kept in America and used to spur American manufacturing and clean up our transportation sector. But this is not what’s happening. Instead, the shale gas industry is working hard to liquify natural gas and send it to the export market, a move that will inevitably cause the price for US natural gas to increase dramatically, even in the regions where distribution of natural gas is abundant.

Much of the argument for allowing natural gas exports is based on optimism about how much natural gas can be accessed economically through fracking; other experts contend that the amount of economically-viable shale gas is much smaller than what the industry suggests and that we may experience significant drops in supply in as little as 3-5 years.

ReVision Energy cannot fortell the future, but we ask you to follow our logic:

  • Extraordinary infrastructure spending – beyond what the private market will bear – is required should Northern New England expect any significant decrease in natural gas prices during the winter.
  • Even if we made such an infrastructure increase, we would still be subject to market volatility in the price of shale gas (and paying off the cost of the pipeline).
  • It looks quite likely that American shale gas is going to be increasingly packaged up for the export market, which will inevitably drive up costs.
  • As far as the market is concerned, Maine and New Hampshire is as far away from Pennsylvania as China and India are.

Leading us to ask:

  • Do we really want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayer money in hopes that maybe we will save money in the long run?
  • Do we choose to make investments in our own cities and towns to build out a distributed, regionally-powered sustainable infrastructure?

Our Alternative Vision

Solar PV for home in Milford NH

This 8.9kw solar electric system will provide nearly all energy used in this home in Milford, New Hampshire.

We believe that Northern New England can, and should, do better than to believe in this myth of cheap natural gas. This natural gas myth simplifies a complicated story about energy prices in New England and makes it easier to neglect the real, roll-up-your-sleeves, hard work that needs to be done: radically transforming our energy sector from one dependent on non-renewable sources, of which not a drop (or therm) is within our borders, to one powered by the abundant natural resources of our own region.

Solar panels have decreased in price by over 75% in the last ten years, driven not by government subsidies, but by competition in the free market. As much solar was installed in the last 18 months as was installed in the previous 30 years in the USA, and industry analysts project that US solar installations will double again by the end of next year. The economic returns of solar PV are so predictable that it has attracted large scale investors as diverse as Google and JPMorgan. In October, “Deutschebank issued a report stating that solar will reach grid parity in 36 of fifty US states by 2016″ (Energy Policy Forum). National player SolarCity recently announced 4% bonds for small investors. The solar market is ramping up in a big way.

Visualizing the Rapid Growth to a Solar Future

Decline in Cost of Solar Panels since 1990s Solar Generation as percentage of new power capacity in United States Rapid rise in solar installations in the United States

The Dawn of Solar

Today, you can invest in solar and expect a 25-year cost of electricity of around 8-10 cents / kilowatt hour. That is less than half of what Unitil will be charging this winter for electricity. Once you’ve made that investment, you will either never pay for electricity again (assuming your use is the same over time), or you will be paying off a fixed-rate solar loan until your 12-year term is up. If you want to further leverage your solar array, convert to an electric heat pump heating systemor electric car, and you can finance the whole package. Ditch the promises of future price decreases and instead grab a fixed-price for energy today, all while reducing or eliminating your carbon footprint.

So, this is the decision we face as individuals, and as the New England community: we can gather the rich energy resources in our region and power our homes, businesses, and institutions, garnering true energy independence and cleaning up our electric grid. Or, we can make extremely expensive investments in infrastructure that will make natural gas investors rich, give us no certainty of price protection over time, and encourage more environmental destruction through fracking.

We do not feel it’s responsible to spend millions of dollars and hope for the best. Instead, we encourage you to ‘vote with your dollars’ – if you’re sick of paying for high electricity rates and ridiculous heating bills, look at what solar can offer. If you’re a satisfied solar customer, tell your friends, neighbors, and perhaps, more importantly, your politicians. Our region is at a critical juncture – invest deeply in an uncertain mythology, or have the bravery to redefine our energy supply, shuck the chains of the global markets, and enjoy independence and a healthier environment.

ReVision Hits the Cover of the Solar Pro!

November 13th, 2014 by Fred Greenhalgh

Solar Pro Magazine Feature Nov Dec 2014

ReVisionista Cal Truman featured on the cover of Solar Pro magazine, working on an installation for Riverview Farm in Hampton, NH

Well, we dreamt about it, we sung about it, and now… it’s happened!  ReVision Energy is featured on the cover of Nov/Dec 2014 Solar Pro magazine!

The feature article, penned by company owner and resident engineer Fortunat Mueller (and North Yarmouth Fire Department Captain), is “Pitched Roof Array Layout for Fire Code Compliance,” a technical article geared towards solar installers who are still trying to digest design implications of new fire code regulations (IFC2012 and NFPA1 2012).

The short of it – new fire codes require 3′ egress pathways for firefighters to be available on south-facing roofs, making it generally impossible to accept a solar design where an entire roof is covered with solar panels.

For example:

Solar PV implications NFC2012 codes

However, the codes are not universally enforced across the country (or even within individual states) so the way that solar installers react to the new codes varies market-to-market.

The Impact of Codes on Solar Adoption

Due to the way these codes may negatively affect the viability of rooftop solar for the homeowner, many in the industry have testified against the restrictions, such as Dan Yechout, the sales director at Namasté Solar, who stated that a strict enforcement of the IFC could result in a 50% reduction in PV adoption in the city [of Boulder, CO].  Per Mueller’s article, “the fire code requirements reduced array capacity by anywhere from 15% to 37% for typical roof configurations.”

However, not all is lost, and Mueller goes on to describe three different strategies solar integrators can employ to ensure their solar array designs are code-compliant, while also financially viable and productive for the customer.  They are to: 1) “harmonize [all] your company’s internal design standards with the fire code,” 2) “design systems on a case-by-case basis to the spirit of the fire code”, and to 3) “proactively engage code enforcement and fire department officials and develop jurisdiction-specific requirements for compliance.”

ReVision’s NH-based operations manager James Hasselbeck is quoted as he describes our approach, the “middle path.”  Since the IFC2012 and NFPA1 2012 are not universally enforced across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, we instead choose to train our solar design specialists about the codes and also the acceptable exclusions.  Code officers can make exceptions to strict interpretations on the code based on firm design logic.  Rather than using boilerplate designs, or trying to skirt the codes, ReVision trains our staff to understand the reasoning behind fire codes, the process used by firefighters in firefighting, and the numerous ways of maintaining safety in fire standards by employing alternate and more creative solar array designs.  This is more tedious, and technical, than the standards to which many solar designers are trained, but it allows our projects to remain consistent safe and within the spirit of the code while also maximizing the productive roofspace available to our customers.

Solar is maturing and ‘soft costs’ go up as codes become more restrictive (such as NEC2014’s requirement for rapid disconnects in GTPV systems), however, this is also good news – solar PV arrays are becoming more mainstream and consistent codes and safer system designs are better for everyone.  ReVision continues to offer free training for fire departments who wish to better understand solar arrays, and we’d be happy to point code officers to appropriate resources for better understanding the codes that apply to photovoltaic installations.

Wanna read more?  Sure thing – download the PDF from our website.

And on the fun side of things…

And if music videos are more your style, here is our anthem to the trade magazine Solar Pro, which caught their attention on Twitter and became a musical sensation throughout the US solar industry:

And to prove his cred… Fortunat Mueller not only battles fossil fuels, he also battles blazes as Fire Captain at the North Yarmouth Fire Department:

Fortunat Mueller battling fire

Solarize Kearsarge Sparks Great Interest at Launch Event

October 23rd, 2014 by christine

Solarize Kearsarge NH MeetingAn audience of more than 160, mostly from Andover, New London, and Wilmot, filled Clements Hall on the Colby-Sawyer College campus on October 18 as representatives from Vital Communities, a Vermont-based nonprofit, and ReVision Energy, an Exeter-based installer of solar-electric systems, told them of the benefits – economic and environmental – of owning their own solar electricity-producing installations.

Among the reasons to act now, Gregory said, is that ReVision is offering a sliding-scale pricing structure that, put simply, will mean that the more residents who sign contracts for system installations between now and the end of January, the greater the installer’s discount for everyone. He offered a table showing all incentives, rebates, and discounts for a system designed to meet the electricity needs of an average New Hampshire home.

Full article available here:

ReVision selected to Solarize Kearsarge

October 20th, 2014 by Fred Greenhalgh
Proctor Academy - Andover, NH

71kw grid tied solar electric array with American-made Suniva solar panels installed on Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire… The epicenter of “Solarize Kearsarge”

ReVision Energy has been selected as the contractor to lead the Solarize Kearsarge program, a 15-week project with the goal of doubling the number of solar electric installations in the three-town community of Andover, New London and Wilmot, NH.

The “Solarize” programs team local community volunteers with a competitively-selected professional solar contractor to lead a 15-week charge of driving sign-ups for new solar installations. By achieving a ‘critical mass’ of installations in a particular region, the homeowners in that area can enjoy a lower cost of installation due to efficiencies on the contractor’s end. The contractor benefits from a surge of work in a local community. Solarize Kearsarge is organized by the Andover and New London volunteer energy committees, with support from Vital Communities, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization.

ReVision has had a special affection for the upper valley of NH since a series of highly successful events that followed up our installation at Proctor Academy. With great support of the local energy committee, we were very happy to put together our application for Solarize, and especially thrilled to win status as “Preferred Contractor!”

Solarize This!

If you live in the towns of Andover, New London or Wilmot, be sure to come out to the Solarize Kearsarge launch event on Saturday, October 18, beginning at 10 a.m. in the Ivey Science Center at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. The event will feature an illustrated presentation on how photovoltaic systems work; their economic and environmental advantages over non-renewable energy sources; the variety of rebates, incentives and discounts available; various financing opportunities; and the reasons to act during the 15 weeks of the Solarize project.

To enjoy the discounts available during Solarize, all systems must be contracted out by January 31, 2015. In the weeks until then, ReVision Energy and the Solarize team will be conducting numerous events, free solar site evaluations, and providing information on the special tiered pricing available for Solarize participants (the more projects booked, the bigger the discount!).

Details on Solarize Kearsarge Launch Event.

Solarize MY Community

If you’re wondering – how can MY community get involved in a Solarize-type program, contact ReVision Energy, we would love to talk with you more. Generally, the Solarize programs need to have an active, enthusiastic local energy committee and some amount of support from either a state agency or nonprofit to be successful. However, ReVision Energy is very interested in partnering directly with energy committees, or even informal groups of citizens, who are interested in putting in the work to make substantial gains in solar adoption in their communities.

As few as 5 solar installations in a particular community can drive a ‘volume discount’ so please contact us if you’re serious.