Energy issues up for votes at Upper Valley town meetings

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-03-2024 6:00 PM

LYME — From a regulatory standpoint in Lyme, solar panels are no different from a garden shed. A set of zoning amendments on this year’s Town Meeting warrant will ask voters to consider making a distinction.

Three municipal buildings already have solar and 105 — more than 10% of homes in Lyme — have it too, but the town’s zoning ordinance as is silent on anything having to do with the renewable energy source, said David Robbins, the town’s planning and zoning administrator.

“I looked at it simply as a structure,” Robbins said. “It could have been a barn.”

But even as far back as 2014, Lyme participated in a program with Vital Communities that brought solar to 51 households.

With the proposed amendments, “We wanted to make it very clear that (solar is) allowed,” Robbins said. “Then we looked at what size would be reasonable for a single house, and tried to set regulations that would allow for a reasonable amount of solar panels for home use.”

The proposed amendments literally define solar — “a structure composed of multiple components that relies upon sunshine as an energy source and is capable of collecting, distributing, and/or storing energy” — and set standards for where solar arrays of various sizes can be placed in town, and sets requirements for site plan reviews and conditional use permits for “medium” solar — occupying between 2,000 and 43,560 square feet and “large” solar — between 1 and 7 acres.

“The stated purposes of the amendments are to encourage the use of solar energy systems while at the same time protecting the historical, cultural, natural and aesthetic resources of the town of Lyme and property values by minimizing the adverse impacts of solar energy systems,” wrote Jim Nourse in an email.

Nourse, who is the head of the Energy Committee, which gave feedback on the amendments, wrote: “The balancing act requires trade-offs.”

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Plainfield, which made similar amendments a few years ago, is familiar with the balancing act.

“The more significant changes happened a couple years ago when we increased the size of the array allowed without having to go to (the Zoning Board of Adjustments),” said Town Administrator Steve Halleran. Now most Plainfield residents can install conventionally-sized residential solar with just a building permit.

But larger solar set-ups require a special exception from the zoning board. A 1 megawatt solar array — 4.5 acres of panels — proposed by Kearsarge Energy would be the largest in Plainfield. Zoning passed at an earlier Town Meeting allows abutting residents to comment on the project.

“Neighbors of the project were rightly concerned,” Halleran said. “But having that process has meant they get to have their say, and the applicant has modified their proposal.”

This year, voters will be asked to consider amendments to Plainfield zoning that makes it clear that solar projects have to have a “decommissioning plan” — and sets noise limits for wind projects.

Otherwise, “it’s always been pretty easy to get a solar or wind project in Plainfield on a residential scale,” Halleran said.

Elsewhere on the energy front, residents in Charlestown, Grantham and Lyme will vote on whether to join the nonprofit Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, or CPCNH.

If voters say yes, those towns would be in line to join Enfield, Hanover, Lebanon, Plainfield, Newport and New London in community power aggregation.

Made possible by a 2019 state law, community power allows municipalities to buy electricity on behalf of residents. Utilities still “deliver” electricity on transmission lines.

Unless they choose to opt out, residents and businesses on a utility default service will automatically be bumped into the program. Customers can opt in and out when they choose.

“The costs of energy in NH are some of the highest (in the country),” said Grantham Selectboard Chairman Peter Garland. “And with this we have the opportunity to save money on our electric bill.”

While the financial savings of CPCNH compared to default utilities has shrunk in recent months as utilities have cut rates, the 8.1 cent basic rate offered by CPCNH in February was lower than the rates of Unitil, the New Hampshire Electric Co-op, Liberty and Eversource.

Community power remains the most flexible purchasing option, and could insulate towns from spikes in the future.

At public meetings, there was largely no opposition to the idea, Garland said.

The number of towns in CPCNH doubled to 55 in 2023, according to Henry Herndon, member services director for the organization.

Two dozen additional municipalities across the state are bringing it up for votes at town meetings.

“We applaud these towns in taking an important step to empower their communities with greater local control, ratepayer savings and consumer choice in energy,” Herndon said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.