N.H. Solar Could Double, Thanks To 'Group Net Metering'

Oct 1, 2014

A dump-truck empties fill into a decommissioned waste-water lagoon in Peterborough. The site will soon be the largest solar array in the state.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

In Peterborough, right next to the waste-water treatment plant, there’s what looks like a giant mud pit, with puddles covered with thick green algae.

“What was here was a waste water-treatment lagoon with water depths of around six to seven feet,” explains Rodney Bartlett, the town’s director of public works, as he watches as load after load of rock and gravel is dumped into the mud. “What we have in process is the water’s been removed, sludge has been removed and the filling process has started, and on top of that will be a one megawatt solar array.”

It’ll actually be slightly less than one megawatt, but it will be the biggest solar farm in the state, and the energy made here will help power a number of town buildings.

“We were actually able to increase the system size and that excess power we’re now going to be wheeling over to the library, and other town facilities that might not have a suitable site for installing a solar system,” says Chris Anderson of Borrego Solar, which is installing the array.

They can do that because of New Hampshire now allows what’s called group net metering. Regular net metering has been going on in New Hampshire for over a decade. That’s when any excess energy from a renewable power generator can be sold back to the utility, causing the customer’s electric meter to run backwards.

Thanks to this law, which flew under the radar when it was working its way through the statehouse, Solar energy in the Granite State is set to boom. There are enough projects in planning stages to double the amount of solar power on the grid in just two years. 

Under group net metering, someone can install a really big solar array and string together a bunch of meters. So even if the solar panels generate more power than the host will ever use, other meters can take advantage of the credit.

The rules to make this law work aren’t yet final, but Jack Ruderman, director of Sustainable Energy at the Public Utilities Commission, has already approved enough applications to increase the state’s solar capacity by 10 percent.

“It was just a little bill which advanced fairly quietly, was enacted, and a year and a half later you’re starting to see the ramifications and they are really well beyond what many people envisioned,” says Ruderman.

He says there’s a stack of applications on his desk that he hasn’t even looked at yet. “We’re going to come close to doubling how much solar we have in this state, my guess is in the next two years, in large part because of the group net metering law.”

N.H. Net-Metered Energy Projects | Create Infographics

Much of that doubling would come from one developer.

“New Hampshire was just ready for it,” say Andrew Keller.

He and his company, New Hampshire Solar Gardens, jumped out as soon group net metering was law. “Once the word was out there, the different stakeholders were there. I think I cold-called one customer and that’s it,” says Keller, explaining that the number of projects that his startup either has ready to build or in the works adds up to more than half of the solar currently installed now.

It’s coming so quickly Keller worries the state will soon bump into the 50 megawatt limit the law sets on net metering.

“I mean we could eat into it quickly. I think in the next [legislative] session that needs to start coming up,” he says, “Better to plan for it now before we need it, instead of rushing to get it fixed when we do need it.”

Vermont hit its cap in 2013 and immediately raised it. In Massachusetts a state seen as friendly to solar energy some pushed to have the cap eliminated, but in the end it was raised incrementally.

This is often a fight: utilities warn that too much net-metering threatens their business model. In states where solar power has grown quickly – like Arizona, Utah, Georgia and Wisconsin – power companies have pushed to scale back or even eliminate net-metering.

Utilities here have been less vocal, but if group net-metering continues to grow that could soon change.