The Hippo


Jul 22, 2019








The MacDowell Colony’s new solar panels began powering this January. Kelly Sennott photo.

More solar artists

MacDowell isn’t the only cultural entity going solar. MainStreet BookEnds of Warner became the second bookstore in the country to go 100-percent solar in recent years, and over in Deerfield, shoemakers Rob and Barbara Mathews paid cash in 2013 for their maintenance-free solar panels, which are installed on the roof of the south-facing barn attached to their 250-year-old post-and-beam colonial farmhouse. The couple had blown insulation into the walls, and this was the next step in making their home and workplace more efficient.
“We’d been thinking about it for a long time. We raised three children and had college expenses and wedding things,” Barbara Mathews said via phone, in the car with her husband on their way from a craft show. “Cost had come down significantly and is continuing to drop significantly. I would hope that would encourage a lot of people to look seriously at the capability of this investment, not only what it can do for them personally, but what we need them to do for the global situation.”
When the couple go to craft shows, buyers and fellow artists are interested in their story.
“I think people within the arts community — though you can’t say that about everyone — tend to have a progressive view of things and be concerned about the environment, and what they can do in their personal lives to have a positive impact on their communities and their world,” Barbara Mathews said. 
They made the investment because of environmental concerns, but there will be eventual financial payoffs.
“It’s a big initial outlay relatively speaking, but it will continue to pay for itself — the projected payback was about nine years. After that, the system will have totally paid for itself, in terms of covering our investment. So we’ll be getting free power at that point,” Barbara Mathews said.
Down the road, Deerfield wood-turner Greg Doane’s studio runs on solar, too, except he got his panels during Jimmy Carter’s administration. 
“Jimmy Carter started the energy credit thing. He even installed solar panels on the White House. Of course, Ronald Reagan took them right down as soon as he came into office,” Doane said via phone. “A lot of artists like to live off the road, and the cheapest way to do it is to go solar.”
Doane is one of those people living off the road and in the woods. He wanted to be energy-independent, starting with windmills and moving to solar because of the little maintenance they require. Unlike Barbara and Rob Mathews, he’s off the grid and does most work on sunny days, not doing much in December when it’s too cold and dark to get a lot done anyway.
Christina Zlotnick, events marketing specialist for ReVision Energy, said most people come through them not because they want to save money but because they care about sustainability. Zlotnick said the company has experienced rapid growth — it installed just over 6 megawatts (6,000 kilowatts) of solar photovoltaic panels last year, enough to power roughly 1,000 homes.
“I haven’t lost power in 25 years. Most people can’t say that in New Hampshire,” Doane said. “Probably, most households will be going solar, so why not artists?”

Cutting edge colony
MacDowell Colony goes solar

By Kelly Sennott

 Peterborough’s MacDowell Colony doesn’t appear very cutting-edge on the surface.

The nation’s first artist residency program, founded in 1907, looks very much as it did in the early and mid-1900s. Its front offices sit in Colony Hall, a converted white barn from the 1780s, with a large front hall and wooden banisters lining the second floor. Surrounding the barn are dirt roads leading to 32 individual studios and housing. The air smells like burning wood stoves, and few cars pass by.
The colony’s edginess sits out of view, behind these front offices and in an open field — muddy during a late February visit — in the form of a half-acre solar array. The photovoltaic panels began producing electricity for the colony back in January, offsetting about 74 percent of the 450-acre property’s electrical needs. 
MacDowell Colony Resident Director David Macy said during an in-office interview that he’s been getting a great deal of support and positive feedback from the arts community — after all, many come to the program with environmental platforms and cutting-edge techniques or viewpoints. 
“Beneath the skin, everything [at MacDowell] does continue to change and evolve and become appropriate for our time, so this is one more step in that direction. It matches up better with the ethos, certainly, of people coming here,” Macy said. “And it fits with our philosophy. The colony had ecological concerns in its original mission statement, and so this is continuing expansion on that.”
This beneath-the-surface edginess also fits with composer and colony co-founder Edward MacDowell’s original vision of the place. He’d found he was able to produce more and better music in the quiet and quaint Peterborough landscape, and he’d wanted to afford other artists the same creative experience under which he’d thrived. For the most part, the aesthetic and landscape remain unchanged.
The panels will supply about 186,000 kWh and prevent 282,300 pounds of carbon dioxide from releasing into the atmosphere each year, part of a long-term strategy MacDowell has been pursuing since 1992, when it first began further insulating the 40 small buildings on the premises.
“They were leaky, as lots of homes in New England are. Our first effort was to go and renovate all the studios,” Macy said.
Solar entered the discussion during renovation planning in 2007, when Colony Hall was going through its first refurbishments and coming into compliance with 21st-century code. At that time, solar didn’t make sense, but Macy and the board kept an eye on solar development, particularly as prices dropped and efficiency increased.
“I’d done a lot of reading on my own, and I’d spoken with several board members who were enthusiastic about it. One of them was Bob Larsen, who’s on the board of the Nature Conservancy. They were looking to do a solar installation at their headquarters, and that was actually the conversation that spurred me to reach out to ReVision [Energy, based in Exeter] and get a proposal to them to see if this was a project they’d bundle for,” Macy said.
The colony began pursuing the project in late 2012, completing construction in December and switching power on in January. ReVision owns the panels, and whatever power is generated belongs to the electric company. The colony buys electricity the field produces from Eversource, and at the end of seven years there’s an option to buy out.
“So we’re really going to be looking to fundraise between now and then to purchase the equipment so that our solar then would be coming from the sun and not through a contract,” Macy said. “We’re in a good position. We have a lot of sunny days, and we’re not so far north that sun is weak. … We’re in a lot better position than Germany ... and Germany is covered in solar panels.”
MacDowell will continue to flip and renovate studios, replacing windows and installing higher-quality insulation and electric heat pumps. At Colony Hall, it already utilizes a hot water boiler run on wood pellets, and in the summertime, the kitchen sources from its own garden, berry patch, peach orchard and portable chicken coop.
Macy thinks solar is a viable option for arts nonprofits but said every installation is different, as there are so many parameters, from cost to scale to position relative to the sun. They’re not saving a great deal of money at the moment, but the investment will enable savings in the coming years.
“The deal we ended up with was just the most cost-effective and the fastest way to save on energy costs and get as green as we could as fast as we could,” said Jonathan Gourlay, MacDowell communications manager. 

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