By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
FREEMONT – Cheryl Rowell was busy snapping photos of the solar panels being hoisted to the roof of the town's safety complex as a group of Ellis Elementary School students walked past her, heading back to their classroom across the street.
They were completing their field trip to the town's newest sustainable energy hub, and Rowell was there to document the moment.
After 14 months of gradual greening around town, beginning with energy audits, yesterday's installation of two panels on the town building was truly a Kodak moment for Rowell, a member of the town's volunteer Energy Committee.
“I don't have any idea how much we'll save – those panels aren't going to generate a ton of power, but it's something to build on,” said Rowell.
Paid for by two grants – $2,500 from the Walmart Distribution Center in Raymond and $1,000 from New England Grassroots Environment Fund – the solar array is the latest in a series of greening efforts around town meant to trim the energy bill.
It will also provide a new area of study within the science curriculum for students, one that incorporates lessons in math, economy and sustainable energy.
“Students will be able to track how much power the panels are storing through a graph on a website set up by the company installing them,” said Rowell.
Yesterday, Brian Pellerin, one of the founders of Derry-based Freedom Renewable Energy, fielded questions from several groups of students who walked across the street to see the work in progress, on everything from photovoltaic effect to marshmallows.
“How does it work?” asked one fourth-grader, prompting Pellerin to break down the basics of how a solar cell made of silicone wafers converts sunlight into electricity.
“How long do they last?” asked another curious kid, who had a follow up question, after Pellerin told him each panel can collect sunlight for 30 years.
“But what if it's cloudy for an entire 30 years?” he said, like any skeptical, vitamin-D deficient New Englander in March.
Pellerin assured the kid that, thanks to our particular climate, we actually get more sun than Tampa or Houston.
“Even in the worst weather, crazy storms and all, New Hampshire gets about 3.8 to 4.6 hours of sunlight a day,” Pellerin said. “That's actually a common misconception around here.”
He said each panel on the town building will produce ½ kilowatt for every hour it's exposed to the sun – which translates to a total of about 4.5 kilowatts per day between the two panels. Given that the average home in New Hampshire uses abot 25 kilowatts per day, savings for the town's largest building will quickly add up.
Another student asked about special clothing needed by the two guys, UNH student intern Jason Morse and installation manager Rich Doucette, who were climbing a big ladder and crawling to the peak of the roof to start laying down the rails that would hold the panels in place. Pellerin assured her there was no special clothing, only safety gear.
“I don't have a question; just a comment,” said another fourth-grader., still dwelling on safety gear. “It would be cool if you used giant marshmallows as protective gear.”
Agreed, said Pellerin, with a smile, who confirmed that people have all kinds of questions about renewable energy, particularly the merits of solar in a state known for its piles of seemingly unmeltable snow.
“Actually, Germany leads the world in solar, and they have less sunlight hours in a day than we do,” Pellerin said.
Pellerin, who is a member of Derry's newly formed Energy Committee, said many municipalities are exploring solar options right now, based on the spike in requests for estimates and jobs going out for bid.
“With all the incentives out there, it's the right time,” Pellerin said. Homeowners are currently eligible for rebates up to $6,000 from the NH Public Utilities Commission, and federal ARRA funding allows for a 30 percent tax credit – a dollar for dollar match.
In round numbers, that means the $18,000 it would cost a residential customer to install enough solar panels to generate 2 kilowatts will spend about $7,500 after rebates, and save about one-third of their normal electric bill.
Solar isn't going to work for every home. But energy audits can help every family find inexpensive ways to save energy and money on their monthly utility bills, said Pellerin.
“We are getting busier all the time. It's a combination of more awareness, availability of grants, and people's general hatred for electric and oil companies,” Pellerin said.
On the Web:
Database of state-by-state renewable energy incentives: www.Dsireusa.org
Northeast Sustainable Energy Association: www.nesea.org