Across sectors, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted businesses large and small, even forcing some local favorites to shutter for good. But for the green energy economy in the Monadnock Region and beyond, there could be a bright spot on the horizon.
According to a report published in December by the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar energy accounted for 43% of new U.S. power capacity additions through the third quarter of 2020. And the industry expects to install more than 19 gigawatts of solar this year, which is enough to power more than 3.6 million homes — a 43% increase compared to the previous year.
Local business owners say they’ve seen a similar trend in the Monadnock Region. Victoria Roberts, co-founder and co-owner of Southern Vermont Solar in Brattleboro, Vermont, says sales have spiked for the business during the pandemic.
“The interest level just skyrocketed,” Roberts notes. “The [number] of people interested and willing and ready to go solar has dramatically increased. That is the positive, but there are so many challenges.”
SUPPLY CHAIN GLITCHES
The company, which offers residential and commercial solar installation and battery storage installation, made use of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) early in the pandemic, she says. That helped the business stay afloat while its installation projects were stalled during the shutdown.
But when Southern Vermont Solar was able to open back up, difficulties remained, especially when it came to procuring enough supply to meet the local demand for its Tesla Powerwall batteries.
“We got a ton of sales, and then we still have not gotten product,” Roberts says. “Which put us in a really challenging situation because we had the staff to meet the demand, but then the product never came in.”
Over the state border in Keene, New Hampshire, Green Energy Options has faced similar obstacles amid an increase in sales, according to owner Valerie Piedmont. In addition to solar installation, the business offers efficient heating solutions such as pellet stoves and mini-split heat pumps. But Piedmont says during the pandemic, their suppliers may have only 90% of the parts they need to assemble a stove, leaving Green Energy Options stuck.
“It just seems like, in general, it takes longer because there’s all these little glitches in the supply chain that we never had to deal with before,” Piedmont says.
She notes that while Green Energy Options previously contracted out most of its installation services, the company has brought those services in-house during the pandemic to meet the increased need and ensure employee and customer safety.
Piedmont says some of the surge in interest has come from new residents moving to the Granite State, while some established residents have been focusing on home improvement during shutdowns that have confined them to their living spaces. She says it has been apparent that customers are stressed and exhausted by the public health crisis, which has made it even more important for Green Energy Options to focus on building customer relationships.
“I think part of the opportunity has been figuring out how to serve our customers from behind these masks,” Piedmont says. “And to be able to be our warm and friendly selves through our masks and just kind of normalizing what we’re facing right now.”
Roberts noted that Southern Vermont Solar is partnering with the local utility provider, Green Mountain Power, to provide affordable loans for Tesla Powerwall batteries that store solar energy, with new spots in the program opening up in January.
“The timing of everything, making the battery storage affordable through the utility programs plus the pandemic, was like a recipe for people wanting these services in a really bold way,” Roberts says.
According to the Solar Energy Industry Association’s report, about 70% of the industry’s market in the third quarter of 2020 came from utility-scale projects, partially due to cities and towns working to meet their carbon-reduction goals.
The Elm City is among the communities working to reduce its carbon footprint. At the end of the year, the Keene City Council was on the brink of approving a sweeping energy plan that aims to transition the city to 100% renewable sources for all electricity by 2030 and for all heating and transportation energy by 2050.
John Kondos, a board member of the Peterborough-based Monadnock Sustainability Hub, says the nonprofit organization is also working with Cheshire County, the city of Keene and several area towns to develop community power programs — in which local governments procure and provide power to residents — within the next few years. Such programs give municipalities more control over the source of their power, he explained.
GREEN ENERGY SKYROCKETS
Kondos notes that advocacy efforts have continued in the area throughout the pandemic, with the Monadnock Sustainability Hub offering presentations and workshops around the climate crisis and electric vehicle charging initiatives on Zoom. At the same time, green energy sources such as solar and wind power have continued their rise, he says.
“COVID has clouded everyone’s assessment of what’s going on, but the really good news is, wind and solar have really exploded,” Kondos says. “They are now, in many places, the world’s most economical electrical source of energy, beating the pants off of coal and even natural gas in many places.”
That’s thanks in part to federal tax incentives, which allow filers to deduct 26% of the cost of installing a solar energy system from their federal taxes. The fate of the tax credits had been unclear as 2020 wound to a close, but just before the end of the year, Congress approved a second COVID-19 relief bill that includes extended federal incentives for solar power installation.
“If they decide to keep [the tax credits], I think it will just keep on an upward trajectory, and there’s nothing stopping people from wanting to go solar,” Roberts said in mid-December.
At the same time, the Monadnock Region’s potential capacity for renewable energy is expanding.
In late December, state officials gave the final go-ahead for a 110-acre solar array to move forward with construction in Fitzwilliam, according to The Keene Sentinel. The project will be the largest solar array in the state, with the capacity to power about 7,000 homes. Power companies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are signed on to buy the electricity so far.
A bit to the east, the Antrim wind project was completed in late 2019, with nine turbines now generating enough energy to power about 12,000 homes.
Local green energy providers and advocates say the public health crisis could result in long-term impacts for the field, partially through emphasizing to Americans how ill-prepared the country is for the looming threat of climate change.
“People are going to come to grips with the fact that the pandemic was really almost a warning or a warm-up or a — pick your analogy — a Little League game,” Kondos says. “And you’re now going to go on to the big leagues, versus the climate crisis.”
Piedmont points to protests that have erupted during the outbreak around issues such as racial justice, housing equality and climate change mitigation as a sign of changing attitudes that could continue to fuel the green energy sector.
“For right now, there’s just a big, surging social movement that says we can’t continue with the way business has been conducted in the past,” Piedmont says. “And we need to really have all of our decisions reflect our love of humanity and the planet and progressive thinking rather than some short-sighted greed.”
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