January24

More Power To You

by Tony Shepley,

We are the beneficiaries of an amazing reliable source of energy, the sun. Thankfully, it is the paragon of reliability and for thousands of years has provided us with a livable climate in a universe that may not contain another similar environment anywhere else, capable of supporting human life.

Passive solar energy has been our friend in the radiant heat it has provided us and although Edmund Becquerel, a French physicist, discovered that electricity is created when certain materials are exposed to light in 1839, the amount of power was barely detectable and therefore of no practical use. In the late 1800’s, American inventor Charles Fritts developed plans to make solar cells of selenium wafers, but again, not on a scale to be of any practical value. In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper demonstrating his photon theory which described how light can stimulate electrons on a metal surface, but it wasn’t until the discovery of a means to grow silicon crystals in the 1930’s and the subsequent creation in 1954 by three Bell Labs scientists of the first photovoltaic cell, that photovoltaic technology really came into being. Though we might laugh at the very low efficiency of early solar panels, they were the pioneering first step that attracted interest and further development. Big advances were made in the 1970’s with backing from Exxon and solar panels began to find use in remote locations such as on oil rigs or on satellites in space where conventional power was not available. The cost of solar panels has continued to drop and their efficiency has increased exponentially since then. Currently, close to 2% of America’s total electrical needs are being met by solar production but the rate of solar production is sharply increasing each year. As an example, total US solar production has increased by an average of around 50% each year since 2012. Massachusetts currently ranks 6th in solar production out of the 50 states, led by (in order) California, Arizona, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Nevada.

In 2012, in conjunction with real estate partner Bruce MacGregor, we brought online a solar project next to the Barnstable Airport in Hyannis that was at the time, the largest privately owned solar project on Cape Cod. It generates 1.5 mega (million) watts and is comprised of 6,000 solar panels that laid edge to edge would cover almost 6 acres. Most of the panels are ground-mounted, while some are roof-mounted. We were the Cape Cod Commission’s first solar project application. Although we had gone before them on other projects, this was the first time we did not use an attorney to present our case. Instead, we used the solar developer, at his own suggestion. Did we lose a few nights of sleep during the process? Yes, but the result was positive, less confrontational than usual, and ultimately successful.

Being an early adopter is always a bit of a risky proposition and solar is no exception. Rather than simply lease the land to a solar developer who would construct and manage the solar field, we decided to go all in and participate in the construction of the field and maintain ownership. This is the first choice that anyone interested in a solar project will have to make, whether to own the project or simply lease the land or rooftop. Along the way we learned the ins and outs of government subsidies that assist in the construction of the project and that help fund the operation of the project through a system of SREC’s (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates). The government requires that the utility companies, such as Eversource or National Grid, buy these certificates at auction to help fund the development of more solar projects and the proceeds are funneled back to the solar producer, like us, to help subsidize some of the project development costs.

5 years in, we can report that we have generated significantly more energy from our solar fields than we have consumed in our business. We have generated 8,933,053 kilowatt hours of electricity. The project has exceeded the developer’s 1.5 megawatt rating for the project every year, but we do see production fluctuate in relation to the weather. Even a cloudy day produces power, but there is nothing like a sunny summer day to get the electrons moving to spin the electric meter. It provides us with an interesting weather tracking ability. For instance, we now know exactly how much more precipitation (7.12%) we had in 2017 as compared to 2016 based on our solar production figures.

Put another way, the 8.9 million kilowatt hours of power we have generated translate to 12.5 million pounds of carbon emissions saved, 125,000 trees saved, or enough power to run a 100 watt light bulb for 143 million hours (16,000 years). The most frequent question we are asked is, “Would you do it again and was it all worth it?” The answer, five years later is “Yes”.  Along the way we have had some very interesting learning experiences dealing with the Federal Government and the electric utility company, Eversource, with more than a few scrapes and bruises, but we have been a part of developing a very important part of our country’s energy future. The beauty of solar energy production is that it has virtually no moving parts and no environmental side effects. We are still in the early end of solar development and proud to be able to play a part in advancing the technology forward. With solar generation, we are in the same early part learning curve that any new technology goes through. As to the aforementioned “scrapes and bruises”, there’s an old saying that, “if you’re going to be a pioneer, you’re going to get your wagons burned from time to time.”

In the pioneering spirit . . . here’s to the future, because that’s where we’re all headed!

 

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