Granite Geek: The Search for Old School Solar Power

Dec 13, 2017

U.S. DOT photo of solar paneling.
Credit Flickr CC

At least 19 schools in New Hampshire get some of their energy from solar panels. And the panels in operation at Hopkinton Middle High School may be the oldest. 

Installed in 1999, these panels at the school don't work as well as they used to but they still work.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello speaks with Granite Geek David Brooks, who has been reporting on old solar panels in New Hampshire.

So what prompted you to try to find some of those old solar panels and schools in the state.

Well, you know I'm old so I figured, solar panels can get old, too. No, actually what prompted me is that we get a lot of press releases about new solar panels, new solar arrays being unveiled at schools and town halls, and companies all over the place, and so I just started thinking about what else could be done with solar panels and I thought one set of new ones let's find old ones, and one of the questions about solar panels is how well they stand up over time, whether the chemistry involved with them degrades, and so how that how you should be doing with planning. So there actually is a sort of a serious aspect to this as well.

How much has solar power technology changed over the years?

There's been lots of tweaks in the manufacturing side, in the chemistry and the actual way it's done but from from the layman's point of view really not much at all. The panels pretty much the same as they have for a long time. They look sort of like these weird rectangular windows that you can't see through. They've gotten much more productive so any given panel the same area these days is probably going to produce about five times as much electricity from the same sunshine as they would have back in the 90s.

Is it possible to know how much energy or money school like Hopkinton Middle High School had saved by using these panels for the past 18 years.

It could be if somebody's been keeping track of it for 18 years. But nobody really has. Although I must say that perhaps the most astonishing thing I found when I did this reporting is that the school still has the original manual for this system. They haven't lost it in 18 years. I can't keep track of manuals for 18 days. They still have their own for 18 years. Anyway.

So but nobody has been keeping track of it and because it's DOS software and it's you know transfer from computer to computer, they don't have the records for all of it. If I had to guess I would guess that this panel has maybe not even paid for itself in terms of the 3,000 bucks that the school put in initially, just because it's such a small panel but that's just a wild guess.

Meanwhile, David you're extending your search. You asked for not only the oldest solar panels on schools but also the oldest solar panels anywhere in New Hampshire. And you found that the 18 solar panels at the south end of the big, red barn on North Family Farm in Canterbury came pretty close. They were installed in 1993. How are those holding up?

Those are holding up really well. I want to talk to the farm's owner tell me who's been involved in renewable energy for a long time. And if you compare those panels to panels nearby that are five years old the older panels have only degraded 2 percent in terms of production from the from the amount of power that was coming out. That's amazing. I was very surprised to hear that. So for all practical purposes they haven't degraded at all.

And these are not anywhere near the oldest solar panels in the state. But what they might be is the oldest grid-tied solar panels. That is, this is an array that is hooked into the grid so that when there's excess power basically goes back into the power grid and the farm gets credited for it. He was involved in grid tying so early that it wasn't even allowed. There's a little wind turbine that when he tried first running the power meter backwards when he had too much power. PSNH came out and said, 'What are you doing?' And changed the meter so it wouldn't work anymore. They had never heard of it before. So he's been involved in this for a long time. So from 1993 might be the oldest grid-tied array. But I'm sure there's solar panels on, you know, small houses or cabins out in the woods off-grid of places that have been around since the earlier 90s, since the 80s, maybe since Jimmy Carter's day and I'd love to hear about them because I'm really looking for the the solar panel in New Hampshire that has been producing electricity for the longest continuous period. That's what I really want to know about.

OK, listeners, if you know of such a panel get in touch with David at his website Granite Geek. David, last question for you. So it seems like these solar panels can and sometimes do hold up pretty well over time. Is it wise for me to be thinking about getting solar panels for my own home?

Probably. I mean it depends on your home. If you're surrounded by big trees and you don't have anywhere to put them, then no, it would be a terrible idea. But if you have a place where they can go and if you either have enough money for the upfront costs -  generally the problem with this sort of thing is you have to pay a lot upfront, and you save money for years and years and years and years, because you're not buying, you're not paying for for your electricity.  if you can't handle that or if you can find a company they'll do what they call a power purchase agreement, it will let you put them up there with no upfront costs. Then that's well worth looking into. That doesn't make sense for everybody doesn't make sense for maybe even most people, but an awful awful lot it does. Which is why you're seeing more and more solar panels on roofs around the state.

The comparison I've given before is that solar panels in New Hampshire are like wild turkeys. It used to be when you saw one you'd stop your car and you'd get out and take a picture of it. And these days when you see one (solar panel) you point and say, 'hey look.' At the rate we're going, in about five or 10 years, you're not going to even notice them when you drive past.

David, thank you very much.

You bet.

That's David Brooks. He's a reporter for The Concord Monitor and the writer who puts out more not less kinkiness with age at Granite Geek.