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MacDowell Colony Turns On Power of the Sun

"As a leading contemporary arts center, we want our physical plant to be as cutting-edge as the artists who come to work here. The MacDowells would be proud – they liked modernity of the practical kind."

A new half-acre array of solar panels at The MacDowell Colony has begun offsetting 74 percent of the 450-acre property’s electrical needs each year. The project is a major move forward for the nation’s first artist residency program as it continues efforts to improve efficiency in its buildings and reduce fossil fuel consumption.

The photovoltaic panels, which started producing electricity for MacDowell Tuesday, will supply about 186,000 kWh each year – more than enough for Colony Hall, the Colony’s largest structural consumer of power, which houses administrative offices, the kitchen, dining room, laundry, and gathering space for artists. The installation will prevent about 282,300 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere each year.

“This system is part of a long-term strategy MacDowell has been pursuing since 1992 to renovate studios and common buildings to reduce both energy loss and our dependence on fossil fuels,” says MacDowell Resident Director David Macy. “We started talking solar panels on Colony Hall during renovation planning in 2007.”

As a charitable nonprofit, the Colony can’t access federal incentives to help defray overall costs of such a project, so Board Member Bob Larsen of Concord introduced the Colony to ReVision Energy of Exeter, a solar energy company that offers turnkey installations. ReVision works in tandem with IGS Solar, a commercial and residential solar provider that invests in renewable energy projects for nonprofits. IGS Solar financed, owns, and operates the solar project, and is the beneficiary of federal and state incentives. MacDowell has entered into a 20-year power purchase agreement with IGS Solar.

Coincidentally, construction of the solar array was completed shortly after the signing of the historic Paris climate agreement last month. Macy notes that the Colony is only getting started: “Eastman studio, our most recent renovation effort is an indication of where we’d like to take all of the buildings on the property,” he says. During that project, what had been a drafty studio was transformed into an efficient structure by doubling the thickness of its walls and roof for insulation and adding energy efficient windows. The electric heat pump that warms the studio in winter will eventually be drawing electricity produced without fossil fuels.

“From our energy-conserving steps during construction of our new library to on-going studio renovations, we’ve committed to reducing the Colony’s impact on the environment while ensuring its mission to provide ideal working conditions for artists,” says Executive Director Cheryl A. Young. “As a leading contemporary arts center, we want our physical plant to be as cutting-edge as the artists who come to work here. The MacDowells would be proud – they liked modernity of the practical kind.”

MacDowell’s solar array will work on a net-metering basis where excess electricity created on the property will be fed back to the power grid and will result in credits on the Colony’s electric bill. Because solar power costs are contracted to increase at a slower rate than public utilities’ historic rates, MacDowell will see savings increase as time goes on.

“After six years, MacDowell will have the opportunity to purchase the system outright,” says Macy, explaining the Colony has a goal to raise the funds for that purchase by 2022.


Interested in learning more about how the process works? We sat down with David Macy to talk a few specifics. 

How did MacDowell decide this was the right time to move on a solar project?

We’ve spent years renovating MacDowell studios to make them more energy efficient and will continue to do so for years to come. Over the past ten years or so I shopped renewable energy purchased through the grid compared with building a solar array on site. The efficiency of solar panels has been increasing and their prices dropping significantly for the past eight years. One stumbling block was that the tax credits and accelerated depreciation associated with solar energy are not available to tax exempt nonprofits.  We needed a for-profit partner to make it more economically viable and when we met ReVision it all fell into place.

What have been the biggest challenges? The most surprising benefits?

While the project has come together very smoothly overall, the biggest challenges have actually been bureaucratic: because solar is taking off in the state the public utility was nearing its cap percentage, they are only required to accept solar energy production up to a point. We fast-tracked the project to be certain we would receive retail credit for kWhs fed back into the grid. Because we have an open field near the biggest energy consuming buildings, the engineering of the project was straightforward and construction was substantially complete in less than two months. Nothing much has changed about the electricity in use at MacDowell but we all feel differently about it now that it is being generated by the sun.

This project was made possible through partnerships with ReVision Energy of Exeter and IGS Solar and involved a long-term purchase agreement? How do the finances of this work?

IGS owns the solar panels and we lease the ground under them to them for $1/year. ReVision monitors electricity production and billing and all maintenance the solar array may need. MacDowell signed a 20 year contract to purchase all electricity produced by the solar array; we’re being charged the same rate as the public utility with a small inflation factor. After six years, we will have the option to purchase the whole array outright and at a substantial discount compared to construction costs. We’re hoping to raise the funds to exercise that option.

Thanks David!