Tagged: Environmental Education

More than solar at this fest: Annual SolarFest event celebrates sustainable living and more – Rutland Herald Article

Posted on July 31, 2011 by - Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Volunteers for Peace Performance during SolarFest 2010

The Volunteers for Peace perform a Skit on the main stage during SolarFest 2010.

More than solar at this fest:  Annual SolarFest event celebrates sustainable living and more

Nathaniel Gibson

To call SolarFest a renewable energy festival doesn’t really do justice to this unique annual event at Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth, scheduled this summer for the weekend of July 15 to 17. It is indeed a celebration, one that combines learning the skills required to cope with a changing environment in the context of a beautiful natural setting, with plenty of good food and entertainment thrown in. But it’s much more than a fun learning experience. SolarFest is a process that has brought families, communities and even countries together for almost an entire generation now.

Since its beginning 17 years ago, SolarFest has matured from a small gathering of 200 to an event that attracts thousands of attendees. Despite its growth, the festival continues to draw all its power, including power for the sound and lights on the main stage, from renewable sources.  This year, in recognition of the organization’s commitment to renewable energy and sustainability, SolarFest was awarded the 2011 Governor’s Award for environmental excellence.

SolarFest will mark its seventeenth anniversary this summer by offering, as always, timely information on the latest developments in renewable energy resources, coupled with great entertainment, all kinds of food and lots of activities for children. This year’s keynote speaker is Jeffery Wolfe, CEO and Chairman of groSolar, one of the largest installers of residential solar power systems in the country. The lineup of musical acts includes Jon Cleary’s Philthy Phew, Lynn Miles, Peter Mulvey, Antje Duvekot, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck, and Roomful of Blues.

Attendees will be able to choose from more than 80 different workshops over the course of the weekend, organized thematically into five tracks. Just a few sample workshops are: Net-Metered PV Systems (renewable energy track), High Performance Natural Buildings for Cold Climates (green building track), Fossil Fuel Free Farming (sustainable agriculture track), Life After Vermont Yankee (thriving locally track), and Climate Change 101 (solar generation youth track).

Frequent tours are offered to introduce key features of the festival, such as the informational panels and the on-site renewable energy system — which even incorporates solar hot water showers. The week preceding SolarFest a photovoltaic workshop serves the dual purpose of providing a hands-on learning opportunity and getting the renewable energy system set up.

A unique and popular event is the SolarFest theater-in-the-woods production. This year’s play, written by SolarFest president Melody Squier, incorporates themes of local and sustainable living as it tells the tale of Tinmouth’s 250-year history. Directing the play is Melody’s son Wheaton Squier, who attended his first SolarFest event when he was only a child and has been helping out ever since.

Wheaton has watched the festival grow steadily over the years. In addition to relaying messages and equipment, parking cars and helping his father Marshall with event security, he has also been a previous member of the theater-in-the-woods cast. His first stint as director was at last year’s SolarFest. He says, “It was my first time directing, and I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like, but we had a great cast and lots of fun. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to this year — we have another great group of young actors and actresses.”

Rehearsals for the theater-in-the-woods begin about a month before the event, along with all the other necessary preparations for the festival. Volunteerism is vital, with more than 300 volunteers from all over the world assisting each year. The volunteers collaborate to transform Forget-Me-Not Farm from a working 80-acre therapeutic horse farm into a festival site — work that typically involves a lot of haying, mowing and weed-whacking, as well as posting of all the signage. Beyond the initial preparations, volunteers also run the festival and break it down when it is over.

“People come back year after year,” says Wheaton. “I’ve been involved as long as I can remember, and I think that being so close to a large, community and volunteer-run organization is a really important part of my life. It’s always nice to work together with lots of people and have the reward be this amazing festival.”

The volunteers typically include about 10 members of Volunteers for Peace, an organization that promotes international volunteerism as a means of community development, intercultural education and service learning. These volunteers usually show up around the July 4 weekend, about 10 to 14 days before the festival, and help transform Forget-Me-Not Farm to SolarFest. Typical projects include picking up fencing, building the stage, damming up the nearby river by hand to create a swimming hole and cleaning the barn.

For some volunteers this is their first visit to the United States, and these visitors often comment that their experience in Tinmouth defies many of their stereotypical beliefs about life in this country. Long-lasting friendships are formed as the work progresses, and many of the Volunteers for Peace return to help out in subsequent years.

The Squier family in turn has traveled to Spain, France, Canada, England, and Italy to visit some of their SolarFest friends. “The relationships we have built with the volunteers feel very much like family and going to their homes feels that way as well. It is always wonderful to travel, but to be hosted with such love is something much more,” says Wheaton.

Anyone interested in volunteering for SolarFest can sign up at the SolarFest Web site www.solarfest.org, which also has information about the full schedule of events for the weekend.

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted via www.nathanielrgibson.com.

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
July 3, 2011

A New Kind of Farm Reaps Harvest Year-Round — Rutland Herald Article

Posted on May 29, 2011 by - Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Ferrisburgh Solar Farm

An aerial view of the Ferrisburgh Solar Farm. Lake Champlain can be seen in the distance. The site resembles a map of Vermont, which was completely unplanned.

A New Kind of Farm Reaps Harvest Year-Round

Nathaniel Gibson

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

Nonprofit Goes Green – Rutland Herald Article

Posted on April 5, 2011 by - Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Nonprofit Goes Green

Nathaniel Gibson

A local nonprofit in Plymouth is discovering that being green requires both traditional wisdom and new technologies. Farm and Wilderness Foundation operates six summer camps for children ages 4 to 17 during the summer, as well as a year-round farm on 1,600 acres of land that it owns around Woodward Reservoir and Lake Ninevah. As the foundation moves toward carbon neutrality, it is relying on both old and new approaches. During this process, the campers are learning how to promote sustainability and reduce their own carbon footprints. A carbon audit conducted onsite in 2007 provided baseline data that the organization is using to measure its progress. Cutting back on heating oil – 6,141 gallons in 2007 – was the obvious first step because of the foundation’s abundant timber resources. Farm and Wilderness owns more than 1,600 acres of land with the potential to sustainably generate more than 50 cords of wood per year by removing hazard trees around buildings, trails and roads. Without management, these trees would die and rot, releasing over time the same amount of carbon they would if burned. With funds provided by the Vermont Department of Agriculture though the Renewable Energy for Agriculture Grant Program, F&W undertook an engineering study to evaluate the feasibility of using wood to heat its farmhouse, dairy barn and greenhouses – buildings used year-round to support the organization’s farming operations.

The results of the engineering study indicated that the optimal system could be completed in two phases at a total project cost of $65,000. The first phase was to install a wood gasification furnace and then, as funding allowed, a solar hot water system mounted on the farmhouse roof. The complete system is estimated to reduce fuel use by nearly 80 percent, equivalent to saving 4,000 gallons of heating oil per year. It will also decrease F&W’s propane use by 300 gallons per year and should pay for itself within seven years, based on heating fuel costs of $2.60 per gallon.

Pieter Bohen, F&W’s executive director, reports that sufficient funds have already been raised for the project.

“Farm & Wilderness donors very much understand that sustainability and social justice go hand in hand,” Bohen said. “We have to focus on how we’re going to both respond to climate change and produce enough food for everyone to thrive. F&W has the ability to teach hands-on techniques to create a sustainable world.”

The wood gasification furnace and solar system will heat water in a 2,500-gallon heat exchange tank. Water from this tank will supply heat and hot water to the farmhouse, dairy barn and greenhouses through insulated underground piping systems – an arrangement known as district heating. The warm water piped to the greenhouse will flow through small hoses under growing tables and soil. This root-level heating speeds germination and extends the effective growing season, which means that F&W will be able to grow food nearly year round.

The underground piping from the farmhouse to the greenhouses was installed during the fall of 2010. The remaining elements of the system – wood-fired furnace and solar panels – are currently in the design and permitting phase. F&W hopes to have the complete system installed by the end of 2011.

In moving towards its goal of carbon neutrality, F&W is also focusing on the sustainability of its new buildings. Bohen describes the LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) standards as a “game changer,” because instead of emphasizing only technological fixes for creating green buildings – such as photovoltaic cells or solar water-heating systems – the standards also identify more traditional ways to gain points, such as thoroughly insulated, durable building shells and local materials.

The recently completed resource (maintenance) building exemplifies the benefits of such time-proven techniques. Board member Paul Stone of Orwell, determined to create a well-insulated building, worked in partnership with Robert Owen, F&W’s project manager, and John Berryhill, principal of NBF Architects of Rutland, to ensure that this new building would use minimal fossil fuels throughout its history.

The original plan called for walls to be framed with 2 x 6s; however, this was later changed to 2 x 8s so that additional insulation could be used. “Insulation is the most cost-effective, green way to create a low carbon footprint building, hands down,” Bohen said.

The building also features a radiant heating slab in its floor. The end result, Bohen said, is a building that requires very little propane to heat.

Locally available construction materials were obtained for the resource building. F&W forester Silos Roberts works with local loggers to harvest timber from F&W’s own property and property owned by the Ninevah Foundation (more than 4,000 acres). The timber is transported by local truckers to Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford, less than 30 miles away, to be milled into lumber. By harvesting its sustainable forests plots, F&W is able to use its own timber for 60 percent of camp building projects and create local jobs for loggers, truckers and mill workers.

The camps’ increased reliance on wood for heating provides many teaching opportunities. Campers learn what kind of trees yield good firewood, such as ash or maple, and those to avoid, such as poplar or pine. They are taught how to cut, buck and split firewood.

Bohen says, “Campers have a very tangible sense of how one goes about growing food, milking a cow or cutting wood. What we’re trying to do is make the fundamentals of our communities very hands-on, so they know they have been part of a community that has produced its own food, created its own heat – all that a community needs to thrive.”

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer and former Farm and Wilderness camper who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted at ngibson@collaboration133.com.

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
April 3, 2011