The Stone Church has been standing strong at the top of Zion Hill in Newmarket since 1832. Reincarnated as a music hall in 1970 by several UNH students, this church-turned shoe factory-turned New Hampshire seacoast landmark knows about lasting through the decades. Thanks to owners Mike and Cheryl Hoffman, as of this year, the Stone Church is fortified for the future with solar energy.
Mike and Cheryl bought the Stone Church in 2016 after 26 years of frequenting the venue as customers. They always had an interest in being part of the establishment that has hosted the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Phish, Suzanne Vega, and many other well-known and emerging artists.
The music hall and restaurant is a gathering place for the community, where people share great memories along with the music. For Mike and Cheryl, transitioning to solar power was a way to safeguard that for the future, making the business more sustainable both environmentally and financially.
The son of an energy consultant, Mike approached this project already with a sense of responsibility to the environment and energy efficiency. He and Cheryl own several other buildings in the seacoast and beyond, and the idea of going solar was on their radar even before they bought the Stone Church. The payback in energy savings was clear, but they struggled with how to make the initial investment until Jeff Cantara, their ReVision sales consultant, pointed them in the direction of USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grants.
Mike had been acquainted with ReVision for years as a member of the Durham Energy Committee, and he had worked with us previously to install air source heat pumps for other buildings. At Jeff's suggestion, they looked into the REAP grant, available to rural small businesses for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency upgrades. "It's really what turned the corner for us," says Mike. He recalls telling Jeff that if they could be cash flow neutral, they would be on board. Even better, they expect to be cashflow positive within the first year. "We never would have known about the REAP grant if it weren't for ReVision," says Mike. "They assisted us with the whole process and just encouraged us along. That was of huge value."
Their 81-panel solar array was installed in August 2019 on their southwest-facing roof. Mike calls the installation process itself 'flawless.' "The guys were fantastic - quick, professional, and their concern for safety was very apparent," he says.
The end result is a great looking solar array that complements an already very unique building. "We didn't chase a low bid on this project," says Mike. "We chased quality and value, and we got that with ReVision." In their first full month of solar production, the array has saved them approximately $750 on their electric bill, and they expect to save about $100,000 over the lifetime of the system. Financial sustainability aside, every year they will be keeping more than 34,000 pounds of carbon pollution from entering our atmosphere.
Concerts and events at the Stone Church are now offset with clean solar energy, like Dean Ford and the Beautiful Ones' Tribute 2 Prince. Photo courtesy of Stone Church.
Solar was just one of the ways they wanted to improve both customer experience and their bottom line. They also outfitted the second floor of the church with efficient mini-split heat pumps that are powered by the solar energy produced on their roof. "Tying heat pumps to solar is the best thing somebody can do," says Mike.
Solar-powered heating is two-fold in its benefits. The Stone Church is getting away from non-sustainable fuel sources and cutting their carbon footprint, meanwhile the high efficiency of the heat pumps brings them significant cost savings over traditional heating options. Now, what was previously a cold, unusable second floor is a warm and welcoming event space and yoga studio.
"We come to the church with a mindset that we all need to be efficiency-driven now, with the environmental crisis we're facing," says Mike. "We all need to do whatever we can."
They are also working on insulating and air-sealing to make the most of their solar-powered heating.
People have been taking notice of the changes for the better at the Stone Church. Mike says customers ask about the array on a daily basis, and express plenty of enthusiasm and support for the sustainable upgrade. Not just customers either, other local businesses have been taking notice as well, especially when they hear about the cost savings.
For Mike, however, this is an update that reflects values already held at the music hall for a long time.
"Stone Church has always been kind of a hippie-type place, environmentally-minded," says Mike. "Going solar sends the right message that we're trying to do what we can to curb our carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuels." It's a perfect match, one that will sustain both the Stone Church and our planet for decades to come.