Municipal Solar Panel Project Nears To Take Big Leap Forward

The Profile School solar panel in array in Bethlehem, pictured here, went online Dec. 31. In a separate project, money for the three-site panel array slated for the roofs of the Bethlehem highway garage and library and for ground-mounting behind Bethlehem Elementary School has been completed, with no more warrant articles needing to go back before Bethlehem town meeting voters. (Contributed photo)

BETHLEHEM — A two-year renewable energy project, the first or among the first of its kind in New Hampshire, will take a big leap forward in 2022.

Spearheaded by volunteers from the Bethlehem Energy Commission and endorsed by the Board of Selectmen, a three-location solar panel array that will provide power to all town buildings and the elementary school is expected to be complete this year.

At town meeting in July 2021, voters by a 3-1 margin authorized the use of $150,000 from the town’s $1.4 million unassigned fund balance to be put toward the total $500,000 project, the balance of which is being funded by grants.

Although selectmen in late 2021 were mulling the idea of putting another warrant article before voters at the March 2022 town meeting, funding through additional grants and donations has since been completed with no more warrant article requests needing to go before voters.

“We thought we were going to have to go back before the voters and ask for the final amount of funding,” David Van Houten, chairman of the volunteer Bethlehem Energy Commission, said Monday. “At that point [after town meeting], we still didn’t know what the final cost was going to be and we thought we’d probably need more. We had that $150,000 and the USDA grant, and it was quite a lot of money, but we thought not enough. But since then, we managed to raise the rest of the money.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the project a $165,000 grant, after concluding that the town of Bethlehem’s project was among the best submitted for the grant funding.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation offered $60,000 in funding, with the understanding that the town would match it.

The Board of Selectmen voted to take $60,000 of the roughly $270,000 it received in American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 money to make the match, thereby adding $120,000 to the funding.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation provided an additional $65,000 in money from donors.

“We were really lucky and there were some very generous people who stepped up and filled the gap for us,” said Bruce Caplain, a Bethlehem selectman and member of the energy commission.

For the project, the contractor cost is $466,882 to install the solar arrays and upgrade the electric metering system, and $33,118 has been set aside for contingencies.

In all, it is being funded through 70 percent in grants and 30 percent through town reserve funds, with no additional taxes or assessments being borne by taxpayers.

After a competitive bidding process that saw responses by five vendors, Barrington Power was selected as the vendor.

The solar panels will be placed in three different areas — the highway garage roof, public library roof, and a field behind Bethlehem Elementary School for ground-mounting.

Engineering could be complete this month, with installation on the two roofs beginning in early spring.

After the ground mounts behind the elementary school, the project is expected to wrap up before the end of 2022.

The two building roofs are just about all set for engineering, which is now turning focus on the field.

“If they don’t get out there because it’s too cold, they will be out there soon and map out how it’s going to work,” said Van Houten.

The field location was settled after a public hearing and a vote by selectmen, who previously had entertained another location near the school.

The location now being used for the ground-mounting was the original spot recommended by the commission.

Another spot, largely flat and the site of old tennis courts, had been studied that would have required the removal of some trees.

“The elementary school has a claim on that and is using it for an outdoor classroom,” said Van Houten. “We didn’t want to interfere with that so we ended up putting it back where we originally planned it, which is down at the bottom of that field next to the ball field.”

The town of Bethlehem, he said, appears to be the first town in New Hampshire that will have all of its town buildings, schools, and other municipal electric needs powered by solar energy.

On Dec. 31, in a separate project that had been a number of years in the making, the solar panel array at the 7-12 Profile School went online.

“Our first goal here is to get all of the loads that are covered by the taxpayers and have it be clean energy,” said Van Houten. “We should be pretty close to that, especially since the Profile project went live on the 31st and is making electricity … In both cases, we had not been asking the voters for a lot of money. The town one is actually owned by the town right away and all that grant funding makes it a big winner.”

Barrington Power owns the array at Profile School, which has the option to purchase it from Barrington after a few years.

After the costs of installation and maintenance, the arrays at the highway garage, library and behind the elementary school are expected to generate a savings of roughly $674,000 during the first 25 years, after which the warranty expires.

Because the panels can last another decade or two after the warranty, though, more savings are expected.

For the three-site town solar panel array, the first-year savings for the value of the electricity will be about $27,000 for the town, said Van Houten.

“It’s just going to go up over time,” he said. “Electricity prices just go up and that’s just the way it is. If it’s $27,000 this year, in 10 years it could be an upward of $40,000. We picked the 25-year time period for the panels because that’s the warranty, but the panels last 40 years, and it’s gravy after that.”

While cost savings will be realized, the focus is on the clean energy piece.

“We have to do something about not burning oil and gas forever,” said Van Houten.

For both projects, the town and Profile School did a public process, tours, and requests for proposal, and in both cases Barrington Power came back with a proposal that matched what the energy commission and town and Profile School was looking for, said Van Houten.

For the town project, the panels being installed, which were manufactured in Georgia, will have a total rated capacity of 197 kilowatts at the three locations.

Two of the solar panel spots in town offer room for growth.

“We are hoping there is room for expansion at the ground-mount area because what’s going to happen down the road is we are going to be charging electric cars and we are going to be switching to heat pumps and we’ll be using more electricity,” said Van Houten. “We will be adding to all of these systems over time.”

While the highway garage roof will be covered with panels, not all of the library roof will be, so there is room for expansion at the library.

“Hopefully, at that field by the school there will be a fair amount of room so if we need to add a bunch we can just do it,” said Van Houten.

Melissa Elander, with Clean Energy New Hampshire, which provided technical support, said the Bethlehem effort is an example of town government at its best, with volunteer citizens working with a Board of Selectmen to find funding solutions.

“The solar project is the next step in Bethlehem’s efforts to protect the environment and outdoor activities, something we believe goes hand in hand,” said Caplain. “The town is fortunate to be in the heart of the White Mountains with an abundance of outdoor activities and natural beauty year-round. In order to preserve our most valuable resources, the town has fully embraced a green environment.”

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