CONWAY - "One, two, three, push!"
On cue, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen gave the lever a hard thrust, down and to the right. Like that, the largest solar energy project in New Hampshire went on line for the first time.
A crowd of 30 people turned around to face row after row of solar panels installed outside North Conway Water Precinct. To the naked eye, nothing much was happening. But an on-site electrical meter showed the panels were already producing power.
"The meter's running!" someone shouted.
Shaheen joined state and local officials, utility representatives, project contractors and precinct employees at the facility Thursday to celebrate the "substantial completion" of the $2.4 million green energy project. In brief remarks, Shaheen praised the North Conway project as a "great example" that she could talk up elsewhere in the state and in Washington.
"This is a great model for the whole state and the country for how to do a project that produces energy efficiency and cost savings and the same time," said Shaheen, a Democrat who serves on the senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The water precinct provides wastewater and drinking-water services to around 5,000 residents and businesses from its North Conway facility.
All told, the project includes a new heating and cooling system in the precinct's administrative offices, 16 geothermal wells that reduce the cost of running those systems, and 774 solar panels installed over a three-acre field.
The precinct paid for the new systems with a $1.2 million stimulus grant and a $1.2 million low-interest loan with a 20-year term. Using conservative models, precinct officials expect the new systems will pay for themselves in around 14 years.
According to most estimates, the 177-kilowatt solar installation will provide between 40 and 60 percent of the precinct's electricity, which reaches 320 kilowatts per day at peak volumes. At those rates, the precinct is among the largest electricity users in town.
Precinct superintendent Dave Bernier expects the solar panels will reduce precinct electrical bills by $4,000 per month, while the geothermal cooling system will yield an additional $2,000 in electrical savings during the summer.
Two new boilers, which can burn gas and heating oil, will reduce fuel consumption by around 12,000 gallons per year, saving around $25,000 annually.
"We now have a leading example of how alternative energy can lower costs at wastewater plants," said Tom Burack, commissioner of New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services.
"You all have done something extraordinary here," he added.
Manchester-based CDM was hired to conduct engineering work on the project, and groSolar of White River Junction, Vt., installed the solar panels. Several other New Hampshire contractors were also hired for the project, which led to six full-time jobs.
According to officials Thursday, all materials used in the project were made in the U.S., with the exception of the the new boilers.
During the hour-long tour, Shaheen asked dozens of questions about the facility and the new energy systems themselves. She wondered, for instance, how much geothermal heat would be lost through the insulated pipes and whether the pipes were hot to the touch.
She noted that funding from the $787 billion stimulus package was the largest single investment in green energy in the country's history. She says green energy projects like the one in North Conway show why it's necessary to pass a comprehensive energy bill in Washington.
Framing the energy issue as crucial to our national security, the environment and the nation's economy, she says there should be government incentives for similar projects elsewhere.
To that end, various energy proposals have been introduced in the Senate, including a leading measure by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. Shaheen says she is "hopeful" something will pass.