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Historic NH hotel wants to advance solar power

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RYE, N.H. — Jack Farrell was still new to his job at the historic hotel 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast when he woke up one morning to the sound of chirping birds and crashing waves.

"How did I get so lucky? This job is so great! What a beautiful place!" he marveled to himself, before quickly realizing that the reason he could hear such sounds was that the island's diesel generator had broken down.

As facilities manager at the Star Island Family Retreat and Conference Center, it was Farrell's job to get the generator fixed. Today, his job also involves planning for its replacement as part of a project that involves one of the largest solar panel installations in northern New England.

"To me that's the whole story. You can hear it constantly. You can smell it. And where this is an environmental sanctuary, we can do better than that," said Farrell.

At 46 acres, Star Island one of the larger islands in the Isles of Shoals, a small cluster straddling the New Hampshire-Maine line. Dominated by the Oceanic House, a grand hotel dating back to the 1870s, it has been owned since 1916 by the nonprofit Star Island Corporation, which offers religious retreats and educational conferences, as well as accommodations for families and individuals if available.

The hotel and conference center essentially operates as a self-sufficient town, producing its own water and electricity and running its own wastewater treatment center. With that kind of closed system, it can test new energy technologies and see immediate results, making it a microcosm for other places, Farrell argued.

"We can do it in a way that shows how things work in miniature," he said. "These are important lessons we can take to other communities."

Touring the hotel Friday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said it highlights the need for a more streamlined system to connect energy entrepreneurs with those eager to try the new technology. That's good for both the environment and the economy, she said.

Shaheen, a Democrat, has sponsored legislation aimed at increasing the use of energy efficient technology in homes, businesses and government. One provision would allow states to set up revolving loan funds to help such projects, she said.

"One of the biggest challenges, whether it's a factory or a facility like this, is getting the upfront money to make the changes," she said.

Vicky Hardy, CEO of the Star Island Corporation, said half a dozen companies have expressed interest in entering a power-purchase agreement with the corporation to set up its solar array. She told Shaheen she hopes federal tax credits for investing in solar projects remain available past their scheduled expiration date next year.

"That encourages the private sector to invest in alternative energy projects with a good return, and allows us to have a facility out here that is going to cost us half of what it currently costs us for power. So they would build it, they would generate the power and we would buy it from them."

Farrell hopes construction on the new solar panel system will begin next spring on a patch of land now overgrown with poison ivy. In the meantime, the hotel has reduced its solid waste by close to 40 percent in the last year, increased its recycling more than 70 percent and installed solar panels on the roofs of some cottages to heat water for showers.

"The island has a chance to re-establish itself as an environmental leader," he said.