Solar plan will be Cape's largest commercial project

Doreen Leggett

Some people call it off the grid; a local group is calling it Unutility and it’s a business as well as a movement.

Although the name seems odd at first, it sums up the mission of the new venture: it’s not a utility.

“Here is an alternative,” said Luke Hinkle, one of the founders. “The alternative to using utility electricity.”

Unutility has to start somewhere and the band of believers has chosen the building that houses Willy’s Gym and Staples as its pilot project before they “roll it out” to others, said member Todd Thayer who conveniently owns the building. In December, 381 solar panels will grace the building’s roof, making it the largest commercial solar project on the Cape.

“It’s exciting,” said Thayer. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s a huge renewable resource and the technology is here.”

Thayer has a degree in earth sciences and believes there is a way to make the environment work for people instead of us working against it.

“He was looking for a way to do the right thing and I was looking for a creative business partner,” Hinklesaid.

The project also suits the economically savvy part of Thayer who says that although the endeavor is risky it is also financially promising. Unutility expects an 11 percent or greater rate of return.

The two other members, Katharine Reynolds and William Clark, feel much the same as Thayer, said Hinkle. He describes them as regular people with a mission to use some of their “hard-earned money” to develop local renewable energy rather than investing in Wall Street or traditional savings accounts.

The investment is a significant, $700,000 for the 85-kilowatt system. That’s one of Unutility’s lures for prospective green energy hosts – it will cover the upfront costs and provide a lease payment.

And, with state and federal rebates, other incentives and electricity savings, the investors will get back half of the installation costs the first year, Hinkle says.

After that, their returns will come from Thayer’s electricity bill, renewable energy credits and payments from Nstar, which will buy – thanks to the new net metering law – the unused power at virtually retail rates, instead of wholesale.

Thayer said his tenants will benefit from lower rates as well, and since the new roof he is installing is white instead of black, it will also cut energy costs.

“We want to make this a green center of Orleans,” Thayer said, mentioning the nearby farmers market.

In the first phase of the project, Willy’s, Blockbuster and Fancy Nails will be outfitted with gleaming solar panels; other sections of the building will follow.

“The idea is we are going to take this in phases,” Hinkle said.

Passersby won’t see the panels, which is both good and bad, said Hinkle. They don’t get the free advertising, but no one can complain about the view either.

Hinkle also runs My Generation Energy, a year-old company that has already grabbed headlines for its solar projects on homes across the Cape as well as its proposal to put photovoltaics on Harwich’s landfill – which failed at town meeting.

A former technical consultant who worked with solar panel manufacturers, Hinkle saw the promise in the industry and he wanted to promote it.

Part of the reason Hinkle started the business was because the Cape has the third highest electric rates in the nation, behind Nantucket and Hawaii.

“We need relief in that sense,” he said.

Hinkle, who has lived in Brewster for close to a decade, said solar panels work best in cool and sunny weather, which makes the Cape ideal.

“The Cape summer days are the best place in New England to put solar panels,” he said, adding a town like Orleans was particularly blessed in that it doesn’t get the fog that other nearby communities do.

Hinkle makes it a point to work with local installers instead of hiring off-Cape firms, which happens with other large solar projects.

“I think it is very important that the labor is local,” he said. “We are trying to make this a local, grassroots build the economy type of thing.”

The Cape Codder