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Cutting Power Bills for WV Non-Profits & Fortifying the Grid

GRAPHIC: Solar Holler has found a way to help nonprofit organizations cut their power bills and, in the process, make the electric power grid more stable. Graphic courtesy Solar Holler.
GRAPHIC: Solar Holler has found a way to help nonprofit organizations cut their power bills and, in the process, make the electric power grid more stable. Graphic courtesy Solar Holler.
May 27, 2014

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – A clever new project is helping West Virginia nonprofit organizations get free solar power and, in the process, building a more stable electrical grid.

Once installed, solar power costs almost nothing, but many nonprofits have trouble paying the up-front costs. Dan Conant, director of the group West Virginia Sun, says its Solar Holler project gets people in the community to raise the money by putting smart meters on their electrical water heaters.

The utilities pay a small fee for the right to cut power to the water heaters during a few minutes of peak demand, explains Conant.

"We're essentially turning this whole fleet of water tanks into a virtual battery," he says. "So, it helps keep the entire regional electricity grid stable, and the utilities pay for this service."

Utility customers agree to sign over the fees from the smart meters. And with reduced power bills for the nonprofit, it's enough money to finance solar panel installation.

Critics of solar power point out that it relies on sunny days, but Conant says when working properly, the grid can even out the supply issues. And once enough people in the community sign on, a nonprofit can get solar installation for free.

He adds it doesn't cost the folks with the water heaters any money, or comfort – because the water in the tanks stays hot long past the brief periods of peak demand.

"It's not affecting their showers; they don't have to pay for the system," Conant says. "Instead, all they have to do is be at home for half an hour while the electrician installs the system, and then forgo the income that comes in from the utility."

Solar Holler is poised to start its first project, at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. Conant says some of the most exciting future prospects are at the state's food pantries, some of which are looking for a change since 2012's derecho storms.

"With power out for three weeks on really hot days, all these food pantries were losing not only their food, but medicine," says Conant. "Putting in a battery back-up system connected with solar panels is the best way to go."

The group also is working toward projects with the Lewisburg City Hall, the Harpers Ferry library, and the Coalfield Development Corporation in Wayne County.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV