Going Solar

New Hampshire homeowners see the bright side of solar energy systems

GA House front2Photographed by Jack Bingham

Not far from the Seacoast, a little more than a half hour from downtown Portsmouth, is the town of Farmington, New Hampshire. Much like neighboring towns Rochester and Dover, Farmington’s history is steeped in mill manufacturing.

Since the early days, Farmington has been a large farming community that continues to serve the community with freshly grown produce. Though the downtown has changed, the scenic views of Farmington’s farmland have not. Nestled among those rolling hills is what at first glance appears to be another nineteenth-century farmhouse and barn. The property, however, is anything but traditional.

Homeowner Jay Lawrie, a builder, and his wife, an architect, designed their new home to blend in with the surrounding heritage and history. One noticeable difference about the barn’s exterior, however, is the addition of a solar photovoltaic (PV) system, which drives an air-to-water heat pump that covers the home’s heating.

“We don’t use any fossil fuels. We’re completely electric,” Lawrie says. “We’re aiming for [net zero]. It’s working great.”

The home is grid-tied, meaning that the energy it produces feeds into Lawrie’s utility provider, which credits his monthly energy costs. With the system still relatively new, Lawrie is monitoring its progress to offset his costs.

“We’re banking kilowatt hours because we produce a lot more than we use. But in the wintertime, because we have electric heat, we use more kilowatt hours than we produce. So in a perfect world they’d be just about balanced,” he says. “It’s hard to tell. We’re constantly working on it.”

The PV system on the home has been running for nearly nine months. It has made the home very comfortable, according to Jack Bingham of Seacoast Energy Alternatives, who worked with Lawrie on the installation of this system.

The solar electric system on Lawrie’s period-inspired home is actually a hybrid, featuring solar electric panels with hot water coils on the back. As a close friend of 25 years, Lawrie allowed Bingham to use the new home and its technology as an experiment.

GA farmington fireplace

“We actually put it up as a test,” Bingham says. “And we’ve just been letting that run for a year, putting a load on it and testing the output.”

Lawrie had been using a conventional solar hot water system at the property, but the hybrid system, manufactured by Two Power, a German company, has reduced Lawrie’s dependence on domestic hot water.

“We didn’t have the solar hooked up the first year and our total energy costs for the first year were $1,900. And that was leaving the thermostat at 70 or 69 during peak [heating] season,” Lawrie says.

Watching the hybrid system in action is proof for Bingham of just how beneficial solar power can be for a homeowner. But he notes that other factors in the building process can help. “Solar electric is fine, but it doesn’t solve the oil heat problem,” he says. “By super insulating his house and putting in the air-to-water heat pump, we’re able to drive the whole house with PV.”

The hybrid system that Lawrie installed in his home compensates for both. “We haven’t completed the whole year, so project-wise we’ll probably be a little under producing all of our energy,” Lawrie says.

Solar installations throughout New England and in New Hampshire especially have risen over the last year. National companies such as SolarCity have moved into the state in response to the growing demand. In 2013, New Hampshire reported 600 solar jobs, a figure that continues to rise as the booming new industry creates new jobs around the state. According to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar is expected to offset carbon emissions by 45 million metric tons by 2016.

GA house back2

Sustainability is an important component of all of Bingham’s projects. The goal is not just to reduce energy costs for homeowners, but to grow an alternative energy resource that helps the environment. With alternative energy as the cornerstone of his business, Bingham seeks to align himself with similarly focused projects and companies. Bingham’s Seacoast Energy is a business partner with the Portsmouth-based Green Alliance, a union of sustainable businesses and consumers promoting environmentally conscious purchases on goods and services.

With Lawrie’s solar electric system on the barn roof poised to absorb the natural light and heat of the sun, he is not concerned about future heating costs. Even during the brutal winter of 2014–2015, with bitter temperatures and record-breaking snow accumulations, Lawrie’s hybrid system operated without a hiccup.

But Bingham admits that it is not so cut-and-dry when it comes to saving money each season. With years in the industry behind him and having worked on a variety of houses and solar projects throughout New England, he knows that both weather conditions and the size of a home can change a system’s performance.

“In the case of sizing, it’s a little trickier because you’re not just looking at the electric bill. You’re looking at what you think the projected heat load of the building is and what you think the heat pump is going to use for power. There are a lot of different ways to figure this out, but you’re never going to know exactly,” he says.

Still, Bingham says what is amazing about working on a project like Lawrie’s is the ability to keep operating costs low, which means savings for the homeowner down the road.

“You tend to spend 20 to 30 percent more on the building than you otherwise would, but you have no operating costs. It doesn’t take long to figure out that after five or seven years, that’s going to be dramatic savings,” Bingham says.

Lawrie beams with pride as he talks about his home. It is a project he can step back from and marvel at. Every day Lawrie says he is able to see nearby Blue Job Mountain, a local hiking destination with various summits overlooking Strafford County and the White Mountains in the distance. Although the home was designed to reach net zero and to reduce both energy expenses and his carbon footprint, Lawrie says that it is the view and the natural beauty of the location that are the home’s best features.

Bingham agrees with his old friend. “It’s a beautiful house inside and out,” he says.

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