Hunterdon County, N.J. | 33 kW
Food pantries are a great candidate for solar. They have one giant refrigeration load to offset, and, of course, every dollar saved goes right back to feeding those in need. Unfortunately, being a great candidate isn’t enough. Solar PV systems are expensive, and interconnecting C&I-sized systems can be annoyingly complex. Wrangling funding and/or volunteers takes time and effort.
Luckily, those practical concerns do not faze motivated high school students, like Evan Kuster at North Hunterdon High School in New Jersey, Class of 2022, who initiated our C&I Rooftop Project of the Year.
“I was volunteering at the Flemington Area Food Pantry in Hunterdon County, and I was thinking of ways I could just help them more, and one way I thought we could do that was by eliminating the cost of their electric bill,” Evan says.
Pretty forward thinking, but that can happen when you grow up in a solar household. Yes, as luck would have it, Evan’s dad is Tom Kuster, CEO of Merit SI and Merit Controls. “I knew my dad had done a project like this in a past, so I asked if this was possible, to put panels on the roof so they could allocate more money elsewhere and help feed more clients.”
Evan made a pitch to the food pantry’s board to see if they’d be open to the idea. They were supportive, Tom says, but maybe “cautiously supportive.”
“I think they were thinking, ‘can he really get all of the donations for all the money this will take?’”
Evan got to work writing letters to industry players, seeking donations and assistance. The timing of the call for help aligned with the start of the pandemic in 2020, which stressed the food pantry’s resources even further. Between March and May, the pantry saw 400 new registrants, and in the first six months of the year, they saw over a 30 percent increase in their clientele.
The horrible situation had the fortunate side effect of helping to spur interest in the project. “People really wanted to help during the pandemic, so that made it a little bit easier,” Evan says.
SMA, OMCO Solar and First Solar signed on to donate equipment right away. Pro Circuit Electrical Contracting was just as quick to help handle the installation, donating all of the electrical and general labor.
Each collaborator went a bit outside their comfort zone to make this happen, too. OMCO Solar exclusively manufacturers ground-mount systems, so it had to adapt its product to fit the rooftop job. Engineer volunteers in the community chipped in some electrical and service support. Evan even went on the utility page to verify this was an eligible region of the grid that had capacity available.
Merit SI, of course, provided the infrastructure design and engineering and acted as project coordinator, although systems of this size are outside of its wheelhouse. “We’re in utility-scale and don’t really know the DG side of the world that well. The people at SMA helped us get all of the I’s dotted.”
Zooming out, a surprising part of this process for Evan (and Tom), more than the industry’s generosity, was just how long the whole project took to get approved and interconnected.
“You could probably build a utility-scale project in the same amount of time it took to build this 33-kW food pantry project,” Tom joked. “We need supportive policy to do well as an industry, and we should be looking for ways to pay back that trust and gratitude that the community provides to us. We always want to do the right thing and be a trusted partner for our clients and for our communities, and this one came together.”
This project was squeezed in during the bridge of New Jersey’s REC program transition, receiving 10 years of REC value at a fixed price that basically eliminates their bill for those 10 years. Collectively, the organizations donated a 33-kW system, relieving an annual electricity bill of $10,556 — the equivalent of 6,360 meals additional meals.
“Every dollar we spend on our electric bill is one less dollar we can spend on food for the community,” said Jeannine Gorman, executive director of the Flemington Area Food Pantry. “We carry out our mission on a daily basis; it’s so motivational for us to know that professionals care enough to donate their time, talent, and supplies to help us continue to serve our community’s needs.”