How Solar Power Has Grown Up - And Into A Cost-Saving Energy Source For Business

Back in the ’70s, sunshine was everywhere. John Denver released “Sunshine on My Shoulders” in 1973. Kids got Sunshine Family dolls under the Christmas tree from 1974-78. (The Mattel toys were sort of the anti-Barbies who kept the Age of Aquarius alive.) And in 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed the first solar panels on the White House (he had help.)

But, if you take a look at the history, you’ll find that now is when sunshine is really having its moment. Right now, sunshine--the root of solar power-- is fueling the energy so many are choosing -- not just for their houses, but for their businesses, schools, and even their spiritual homes.

We asked Jim Merriam, a veteran of the solar industry, and CEO of White River Junction, Vt.-based Norwich Solar Technologies, to explain. After all, their website reads, “Solar Power has Never Been More Affordable,” in headline font. What exactly does that mean?

Merriam says it’s true. And here’s why: “Because predominantly we as an industry have really driven out all of the costs -- and just the panel itself is about 10 percent of what it cost 10 years ago. So if people had looked at solar in the past and thought it was too expensive, it's changed--dramatically.”

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “Solar has ranked first or second in new electric capacity additions in each of the last five years. Solar’s increasing competitiveness against other technologies has allowed it to quickly increase its share of total U.S. electrical generation- from just 0.1 percent in 2010 to nearly 2 percent in 2017.”

That’s all well and good, you think, but New Hampshire and Vermont aren’t spectacularly sunny spots. Can solar work here?

You could look to Germany for an answer. Merriam says, “Germany has a lousy climate, as far as sunny days, worse than Vermont, but it still has tons of solar power.” In fact, Germany is setting records in solar production. “Germany Breaks A Solar Record — Gets 85 Percent Of Electricity From Renewables” says Clean in May 2017; while Germany registered 220 MW of new solar in January according to the Feb. 28, 2018 article in pv magazine international.

You don’t have to look 4,000 miles away for signs of solar success, however. Chances are, you’ve got friends who have aligned themselves with power of the sun. And if you live locally, you might have seen one of the following projects done by Norwich Solar Technologies.

  • The Upper Valley Aquatic Center (UVAC) in White River Junction, Vt. (And yes, the solar panels, located on Route 5 in Hartford, Vt., do indeed--among other things--help heat the pool). Also, neat to know, if you’ve seen sheep grazing among the panels, they’re meant to be there. They come from Sunrise Farm, and they’re better than lawn mowers at keeping the weeds and grass from growing too long and shading the panels. “It’s a win for both parties,” says Merriam, whose Norwich Solar Technologies oversaw this project in 2017.
  • Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center: We all know there’s a lot of life-saving and heavy duty medical wizardry going on at this Lebanon facility. It’s not the kind of place you can close down for even a day or two without negative effects. Luckily, when Norwich Solar Technologies was asked to install a new solar array, it knew time was of the essence. Merriam says, “We couldn't interrupt because it was a medical facility, so we had to do it on a weekend in November. We lifted everything on the roof on a Saturday morning-- early--and had everything on the roof with a crane and have everything out of the way so they were back to business on Monday. ...That was a cool thing to do.” (Read more about this project here)

So if solar has never been cheaper, will it keep going that way? Not quite, says, Merriam, who says solar power has reached its “point of least cost.” But that doesn’t mean the future doesn’t look bright. “Between the solar industry 20 or 30 years ago, with the true believers, now there are so many big corporations (think Amazon, Walmart, Apple Ikea), responsible citizens, going solar and installing huge megawatts of solar, I think, they get it.” There is no debate as to the value of solar, financially and as a way to help with climate change. “We’re way past that.”

And a more personal reason for a bright future, according to the CEO of this solar company based in White River Junction, Vt.? The folks that are filling solar jobs. “We hear so much about retention in Vermont /NH in the northeast, solar is actually an industry that's growing,” says Merriam. “This is actually something that they're attracted to, they want to correct what they see going wrong, (climate change).”

Plus: These jobs are outsource proof. “If we want to take control of our own energy, those jobs by necessity have to be located here,” says Merriam. “It's just fantastic to be able to give a 25-year-old a pathway to a career here in VT, with decent wages, and a really positive opportunity ahead of him, or her.”

And there you have it. At one time, it was cool and hip to love sunshine and solar power -- as cutting edge as the Sunshine Dolls of the ’70s. But now, not only is it the environmentally conscious way to procure energy, but it’s financially sound, too. “It’s such a clear cut case, especially now with tax credits. We’ve had situations where we’ve presented this to CFOs and CEOs and they at first didn't believe it. But then, after doing due diligence, they were like, “Where do we sign?’ It was that dramatic,” says Merriam.

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