Solar Developer Specializing in R&D Lowers the Financial Bar of Entry for Solar

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Solar Power World

Norwich Solar (No. 118 on the 2020 Top Solar Contractors list) of White River Junction, Vermont, was founded in 2011 by Joel Stettenheim and Troy McBride, both of whom have backgrounds in research and development (R&D). Norwich installs commercial solar PV and works on special-interest R&D like pairing concentrated solar and energy storage or finding ways to encourage snowmelt on solar panels.

starlake community solar array norwich vermont
The Starlake Housing Community Solar project in Norwich, Vermont is in total 66 kW and benefits the affordable housing community Starlake Lane.

“We’re trying to not just be someone with our head down, just cranking out projects, and conversely not trying to be just an R&D entity that doesn’t have a grounding in what the current challenges installers or projects would see,” said Jim Merriam, CEO of Norwich Solar. “It has really been riding the bridge between emergent technologies on solar, and in the R&D aspect of it, building off a practical experience of how solar is actually designed and installed.”

The majority of Norwich’s installed solar capacity has come from commercial ground-mount projects since there aren’t many large-roofed distribution facilities in Vermont or New Hampshire. The company’s involvement with ground-mount solar provided an avenue into a larger R&D project: community solar with a focus on environmental justice.

Norwich started its Community Impact Group program in December 2018, which connects philanthropic investors looking to help underserved communities go solar, targeting nonprofits, startup businesses and people in the low- to moderate-income range.

“Renewables and solar are not just for certain classes or entities,” Merriam said. “We have a very large challenge ahead of us with respect to climate change and if we only have certain groups that are able to participate and help us move toward a carbon-free economy, [we won’t get there.] There’s not a difference between the beliefs of any individual, based on income demographics, in terms of wanting to combat climate change.”

With the Community Impact Group, Norwich acts as a matchmaker between investor and client, with the company handling ­­­­documentation, subscriber structure and, of course, installing solar systems for customer offtake.

“It allows us to give back to the community, it supports the community, it’s about the community and the community is made up of all income demographics, so it’s important for us that we fund solutions that benefit everyone,” Merriam said.

Hartford public safety rooftop solar array
Norwich Solar installed an 87-kW community solar project atop Hartford, Vermont’s police and fire building that provides discounted solar credits to two local low- to moderate-income housing communities.

The impact group program functions the same as other community solar programs, where customers receive energy credits for subscribing to a system. Multi-family residential buildings, a new brewery and even a local dairy farm have all subscribed to Norwich’s community solar program.

A 2018 report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program states that climate change disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color. The world is already experiencing the effects of a warming climate, and Norwich is trying to give people access to renewable energy regardless of income level.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Merriam said. “Solar has benefitted from people’s awareness of problems and of a sense that renewables promote a higher level of social justice than the traditional fossil fuel extraction industry. I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to live up to that expectation and to acknowledge the benefit that perspective has brought us as an industry.”

This story was featured exclusively in our 2020 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.

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