A New Kind of Farm Reaps Harvest Year-Round
The future of clean energy in Vermont brightened considerably last fall when the largest solar project in the state to date came online. The Ferrisburgh Solar Farm, located along Route 7 in Addison County, consists of nearly 4,000 ground-mounted photovoltaic panels capable of generating up to one megawatt of electricity during sunny days – enough to power 170 Vermont homes. Site developers Brian Waxler and Ernie Pomerleau waited a year to obtain the necessary permits, but construction of the facility took only three months. Sustainability was a key design consideration. Because the solar farm is located on prime agricultural land, the installation was designed to be low impact. All of the installed structures are completely removable. Once the site ceases to produce solar power it can readily be returned to cultivate more conventional crops.
Unlike crops from more traditional Vermont farms, the power from the Ferrisburgh Solar Farm is harvested year round. Consequently snow cover was another important design consideration. The tilt angle of the solar panels was set at 30 degrees – enough to allow snow to slide off without casting shadows on adjacent panels. “The panels actually warm up due to their dark color and also from the sun naturally melting snow, like on a roof that faces south,” explains Pomerleau. Additionally, the panels have four feet of ground clearance to keep them free of any snow that slides off. This design was put to the test with record snowfalls over the winter. On days when the panels were covered with deep snow or caked with crusty snow or ice, they cleared off when the sun came out.
Waxler and Pomerleau hope that the project will spur further advances in solar technology by driving up the demand for photovoltaic panels. Such advances actually occurred even before the solar farm went online. Its original design called for the installation of 5,200 panels to generate the goal of one megawatt of power, but due to the rapid pace of technological development during design and construction, only 3,806 panels were actually required to meet that goal.
Despite such technological improvements, photovoltaic technology still requires government assistance to make it a worthwhile investment.
The solar farm benefited from federal tax incentives as well as two Vermont state programs. The first, Vermont’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) Program, was established in 2005 to encourage the growth of renewable energy projects. It sets a minimum goal of generating 5 percent of Vermont’s 2005 energy demand or 294,283 megawatt-hours from renewable energy and an additional goal of providing enough renewable energy by 2017 to meet 20 percent of the state’s energy needs.
The second initiative, Vermont’s Standard Offer Program, was designed to promote the development of the renewable energy resources needed to meet the goals set forth by the SPEED Program. The Standard Offer Program aids renewable energy producers by guaranteeing long-term contracts and rates that allow them to recover their initial investment and operating costs. Through this program, Green Mountain Power of Colchester agreed to purchase the power generated by the solar farm.
Without such guaranteed rates, renewable energy producers would be unable to compete with energy from traditional, non-renewable sources – fossil fuels and nuclear power. But as the technology for manufacturing photovoltaic panels develops, solar installation projects on the scale of the Ferrisburgh facility will be able to succeed without government incentives. Pomerleau anticipates that such technological improvements will occur within the next 10 years.
Beyond providing power, the solar farm also offers unique educational opportunities for Vermont students. At neighboring Vergennes Union High School, science teacher Mark Powers has adapted the curriculum of his ninth-grade earth and space science class to take advantage of having a full-scale solar project next door. Powers appreciates how the developers reached out to him during facility construction and included him in the process. “Ernie and his whole crew have been awesome,” he says.
Now that the solar farm is completed, Powers is provided with a data feed that includes incoming solar radiation, power generation and several other real-time parameters. Students thus have a unique opportunity to study the relationship between weather conditions and solar power generation. “Weather is the only scientific news that the media reports every day,” Powers observes. “I’m trying to get kids to understand that weather is not just what you wear, but also has tie-ins with concepts such as renewable energy.”
Students collect daily weather data, including cloud cover and precipitation patterns, and look for correlations with the data from the solar farm. Students also make use of solar kits to simulate how varying the angle of solar panels and changing other variables can affect power output.
Powers has also been coordinating his work with the Satellites, Weather and Climate Program at the University of Vermont so that the techniques that he has formulated can be made available to other schools.
Visitors are welcome anytime at the solar farm’s visitor center and education kiosk. A public view Web site provides real-time visualization of measures such as power generation, weather conditions and environmental offsets, including the amount of CO2 emissions that the project has avoided.
The Ferrisburgh Solar Farm is not only a large-scale demonstration of solar power – it also is an example of how local residents can become involved in the process. Waxler and Pomerleau say that one of the most rewarding parts of the project has been the support that it has received from the community.
Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted at www.nathanielrgibson.com.
The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
May 29, 2011