In 2003, after reading The Party’s Over, Richard Heinberg’s startling revelations about the coming depletion of the world’s oil reserves, New Hampshire advertising executive Peter Adams answered the call to action. He started by bringing a group of like-minded friends and neighbors together just to talk about what he’d learned. The prospect of an energy crisis struck a chord among residents who rely on oil to heat their homes through the long winters, and pay thousands of dollars each year for heating. Discussions during those potluck dinners soon evolved into finding ways to help each other prepare for the inevitable crisis.
From those humble beginnings came the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI). Adams, who had practically no experience with RE systems, was inspired by the do-it-yourself projects he’d read about in Home Power, and enlisted friend Sandra Jones to help get the organization off the ground. Jones put her experience with nonprofit management and community organizing to work. Within 10 months of incorporating PAREI as a tax-exempt nonprofit in 2004, she secured a $35,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that enabled the group to hire her as a part-time administrator and open an office in Holderness, New Hampshire.
At a time when state and local programs for RE were lacking, the initiative set out to provide area residents and businesses with access to the resources and education they needed. “It was a very different atmosphere a few years ago,” says Adams. “The state was not very supportive nor was the infrastructure in place for people to readily get solar, so we decided we had to take matters into our own hands.” The group started by focusing on solar water heating, since several members had some basic knowledge of those kinds of systems.
“We were not experts in renewable energy, and we were learning right alongside of our members. We ended up educating each other, reading books, taking classes, and then sharing what we’d learned at our meetings,” Jones says.
“Once word got out about what we were trying to do, people came out of the woodwork to share what they knew and to learn from others. Homeowners, electricians, property managers, carpenters, and plumbers all had something to contribute, and before long, we had members helping members build wood boilers and develop plans for homemade solar water heating setups,” she adds.
The group’s mix of community-mindedness and moxie has proven to be a winner. In just a few short years, its membership base has grown to include more than 300 families and businesses, and the group has hired two additional part-time staffers. And, while the state’s new incentive programs and progressive net-metering laws have helped further its cause, PAREI has won recognition from both state and federal government agencies for its role in transforming the area’s virtually nonexistent RE market into a burgeoning solar economy.
To date, PAREI has coordinated or assisted with 115 PV and solar thermal installations, with nine more scheduled for the coming year. As a result of their influence, regional technical schools now offer classes in solar thermal and solar-electric installation. Local hardware stores also expanded their inventory to include some supplies frequently required for solar energy installations and energy-efficiency upgrades.
Key to PAREI’s success has been its neighbors-helping-neighbors approach, modeled after the community tradition of an Amish barn-raising. At “energy-raiser” events, teachers, students, tradespeople, and homeowners alike gather for a day of work and socializing to install a solar hot water (SHW) system.
By working together, they accomplish what no single homeowner could do alone. The labor provided by volunteers translates to thousands of dollars in savings. Plus, through PAREI, the installation satisfies the requirement for state and federal rebate eligibility. PAREI reduces the costs even further by buying collectors in bulk and selling them to members at a discounted rate. The group also stocks several system components that are not readily available at the local retail outlets.
But the savings do not end there. The typical SHW systems, which supplement the homeowners’ existing water heating systems, can reduce an average household’s water heating bills by 60 to 80% and offset up to 4,000 pounds of carbon emissions per year. Adams estimates that his SHW system, installed as part of PAREI’s inaugural energy-raiser, saves his family of four 200 gallons of fuel oil per year.
For the Adams’ installation, 27 volunteers, including curious neighbors and local tradespeople, worked together to mount the 22-tube collector on the roof and install a 45-gallon solar storage tank in the basement. Although Adams says this first energy-raising event was “pure chaos,” the work-team persevered. “By the end of the day, after many trips to the hardware store,” he says, “the system started generating PAREI’s first clean and renewable hot water.”
Now the energy raisers are far more systematic, says Jones. Prior to the event, team leaders meet for a “setup night,” at which time the solar storage tank is placed and the pipe layout determined. On the day of the event, volunteers are organized into five teams. A roof-and-ground team attaches the rack of evacuated tubes, overseeing the “goop, shake, and pass the tube” assembly line (see “Goop” sidebar). The solar pipe-run team installs the pipe from attic to tank, and connects the thermostat wire and differential controller. A tank team connects the pipe to the heat exchanger, and installs the pump and gauges. The attic team routes pipe through the roof, while the communications team stays on the ground to answer questions from spectators.
The complexity and scope of each system varies. Collectors have been mounted on roofs, walls, and the ground. The group has installed one- and two-tank systems, typically using 80- or 119-gallon solar storage tanks, but these systems tend to be too costly for the majority. Most often, homeowners choose a system with a smaller, 50-gallon solar tank to add to the home’s existing water-heating setup.
An annual membership fee (currently $55 per household, $75 per business, or $15 for low-income households) entitles a homeowner to either an energy audit or one solar site visit per year, where a staff member determines the feasibility of installing a solar thermal or solar-electric system. PAREI helps homeowners determine an installation plan that suits their needs—either hiring a professional installer, hiring PAREI’s professional crew to assist with the installation, working with PAREI to learn to perform the installation on their own, or participating in an energy raiser.
“Most homeowners come out for at least one energy raiser, and then decide which way to go,” Jones explains. “Some folks fall in love with the immediate gratification and community spirit of an energy raiser, while others get the confidence they need to go it alone. Then there’s a good many that realize a hands-on approach is not for them and that they’d rather hire a professional. And that’s alright—any which way they go about it, we’ve accomplished our goal.”
Should a homeowner choose the energy-raiser route, they must first volunteer for at least two energy raisers prior to hosting their own—and then pay the favor forward at least twice afterward. The home must also undergo an energy assessment, where PAREI staffers and/or volunteers tour the home to determine ways to reduce the household’s energy consumption and improve its energy efficiency. “This is an essential step,” Jones says, “because we want to ensure that these systems reduce as much fossil-fuel consumption as possible.”
While PAREI does not currently organize energy raisers for solar-electric systems, the group does refer homeowners to local tradespeople who provide members with competitive pricing. Many of these installers, Jones says, sought formal training and certifications as a result of PAREI’s influence. For each referral, PAREI receives a small consulting fee, which helps offset the nonprofit’s expenses.
Other PAREI activities include lectures and hands-on training for the general public. All told, PAREI represents a new model for “how to grow solar economies in communities,” Jones says. “PAREI does more than just organize the energy raisers and provide the necessary volunteer labor. It brings communities together and illustrates the impact a committed group working hand-in-hand can have.”
The group is now making it possible for other communities to replicate its model. Individuals interested in starting an energy initiative are welcome to visit PAREI in New Hampshire and participate in an energy raiser. For those who cannot make the trip, PAREI sells a CD-ROM and DVD “tool kit” that explains, among other things, how to organize energy raisers and rally community support. As part of the package, a PAREI member also serves as an advisor, providing start-up guidance via e-mail or over the phone.
Folks from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed on and used PAREI’s model to create SEAREI (Seacoast Area Renewable Energy Initiative) and hosted its first energy raiser in August. The Renewable Energy Initiative of Portland, Maine, also got its start with help from PAREI and held its first energy raiser last March.
“It’s been a very organic process since the beginning. We’d try something, and if it didn’t work, then we’d move on,” Adams says. “But we’ve learned a lot along the way, and we want other communities to benefit from our experiences and do their part to prepare for peak oil as well.”
Associate Editor Kelly Davidson was disappointed that her old clunker did not qualify for “Cash for Clunkers,” but she’s happy that the program got some gas-guzzlers off the road. Until next time, she’s grateful that her 1999 Toyota Corolla still takes her from point A to point B, and gets 20-plus miles per gallon while doing it.
Plymouth Area RE Initiative • 603-536-5030 • www.plymouthenergy.org
Apricus • www.apricus.com • SHW systems