Blog : New Hampshire Homeowners See the Bright Side of Solar Energy Systems

By Katelyn | Nov 2, 2015 | in

By Craig Robert Brown

Not far from the seacoast, just over a half hour from downtown Portsmouth, is the sleepy town of Farmington. Much like neighboring towns Rochester and Dover, Farmington’s history is steeped in mill manufacturing.

Since those early days, Farmington remains a large farming community some of which, like Butternut Farm, continue to serve the community with freshly grown produce. Though the downtown has changed, the scenic views of mountains and lakes of Farmington’s farmland haven’t. Nestled amongst those rolling hills draped in winter's gleaming whiteness, is what at first glance appears to be another 19th Century farmhouse and barn. However, the property is anything but traditional.

Homeowner Jay Lawrie, a builder, and his wife, an architect, built the home to look just that way, to blend in with the surrounding heritage and history. One noticeable difference to the barn’s exterior, however, is the addition of a solar PV system that drives the air to water heat pump, which covers the homes heating.

“We don’t have any fossil fuels. We’re completely electric,” said Lawrie. “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 are electric heat, then we use more than we produce. So in the 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 a year. It’s made the home very comfortable, according to Jack Bingham of Seacoast Energy, who worked with Lawrie on the installation of the two systems.

The solar electric system on Lawrie’s turn-of-the-century inspired home is actually a hybrid, featuring solar electric panels with hot water coils on the back. Since both the home and the system are new, Bingham used Lawrie, a close friend for 25 years, as a pseudo guinea pig for the system.

“We actually put it up as a test,” said Bingham. “And we’ve just been letting that run for a year, putting a load on it, 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 some more.

“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,” said Lawrie

Watching the hybrid in action is proof for Bingham just how beneficial solar can be for a homeowner. But Bingham notes that other factors in the building process can help.

“Solar electric is fine, but it doesn’t solve the oil heat problem,” said Bingham. “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 gone the whole year so project-wise we’ll probably be a little under producing all of our energy,” Lawrie said.

Solar installations throughout New England and in New Hampshire, especially, have risen over the last year. National companies like Solar City have moved in to 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 continues to create new jobs throughout 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. It’s an important piece of the projects Bingham works on, to not just reduce energy costs for homeowners, but to also grow an alternative energy resource that helps the environment. Sustainability is a cornerstone of Bingham’s business and one of the reasons he aligns 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.

Over lunch, Lawrie takes out his phone and shows me photos of the home that had been on the lot prior to his purchase of the property. At 4,000 square feet, the home is a squat, brown, flat-roofed structure that looks more like an abandoned roadside storefront than a house. Lawrie says he doesn’t know what the previous owners paid for their heating but said during the home’s teardown that it had two oil furnaces situated in crawl spaces under the floor. Noting the homes dilapidated state, he guesses the former homeowners weren’t very comfortable during the winter.

“I can’t imagine how much oil they burned. I don’t think they were ever warm,” he says.

With his solar system on the barn roof poised to absorb the natural light and heat of the sun, Lawrie isn’t concerned about future heating costs. Even during 2014’s brutal winter of bitter temperatures and record-breaking snow accumulations, Lawrie’s system operated without a hiccup.

But Bingham admits it’s 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 different homes and solar projects throughout New England, a home’s size and weather will change a system’s performance.

“I mean in the case of sizing it’s a little trickier because you’re not just looking at their electric bill. You’re looking at what you think the projected heat load of the building is and looking at what you think the heat pump is going to use for power, and 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’s amazing about working on a project like Lawrie’s was the ability to keep operating costs low, which means savings for a 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’s a project he can step back from and marvel at. Every day Lawrie says he’s able to see nearby Blue Job Mountain, a local hiking destination with various summits overlooking Strafford county and the White Mountains in the distance. Though the home was designed to one day reach net-zero, reducing energy expenses and his carbon footprint on the environment, it’s the views and the natural beauty of the location that are the home’s best feature, according to Lawrie.

That’s something Bingham agrees with.

“It’s a beautiful house inside and out,” he says.

Click here to learn more about Seacoast Energy. Green Alliance members get $350 off a solar PV system and $250 off a solar hot water system! Plus, save 10% on all in-store items under $500!