Bright days ahead: The sun rises on another solar farm and more jobs in Vermont
Renewable energy sources are proliferating across Vermont, including wind, hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal projects. Last month, the state’s largest solar farm to date was brought online in South Burlington during a ceremony intended to showcase the array’s technological innovations, the jobs created by such projects and the future of clean energy in Vermont.
The 2.2-megawatt array features 382 5.5-kilowatt panels equipped with GPS and wireless technology so they can orient to the sun’s path. By tracking the sun, the panels can produce over 40 percent more energy compared to traditional fixed-panel solar arrays. This array, the first in North America to use such a configuration, will produce an estimated 2.91 million kilowatts of power annually.
The panels are designed to withstand Vermont weather. After sundown, each panel returns to a horizontal resting position for the night. If snow falls overnight, most will be dumped when the panels resume operation in the morning and tilt to the sun – and the rest will melt as the panels heat up. Internal wind sensors signal the panels to go into their horizontal resting positions during windy conditions to protect them from wind damage.
The panels, AllSun Trackers, are manufactured locally by AllEarth Renewables, Inc., of Williston. Founded in 2005, the company initially focused on manufacturing small-scale wind turbines, but decided a few years later to shift its focus to solar trackers.
Speakers at the July 27 commissioning event included Gov. Peter Shumlin, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Speaker of the House Shap Smith and David Blittersdorf, CEO and founder of AllEarth Renewables.
“This project not only produces renewable energy from the sun; it creates a lot of local jobs,” said Blittersdorf. “We’ve innovated and refined our AllSun Tracker so it can be affordably used to power homes or businesses – and at the same time make up a utility-sized farm like this project in South Burlington.”
The land used for the project is owned by two local developers, Joe Larkin and Patrick Michael, who submitted an application to the Vermont Standard Offer Program. The program assists renewable energy producers by guaranteeing long-term contracts and setting rates that allow them to recoup their initial investment and operating costs. The power generated by the South Burlington farm is being sold back to the Vermont Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program, an initiative managed by the Vermont Electric Power Producers that is designed to encourage the growth of renewable energy in the state by setting goals for renewable energy production. By 2017, the SPEED program aims to generate 20 percent of the state’s energy needs from renewable energy.
After their application was approved, Larkin and Michael began working with AllEarth Renewables, who partnered with many local companies to assist with the installation process. Grennon’s Solderworks of Bristol performed the soldering work for the trackers’ electronics, cable parts were supplied by Foxfire Energy of Chittenden, and metalwork was done by NSA Industries of Lyndonville and North East Precision of St. Johnsbury. Two Williston-based contractors, J.A. Morrissey and Engineers Construction, Inc., provided manpower and expertise for the on-site groundwork as well as the actual mounting and installation of the panels.
Expansion of solar energy sources in the state means an increase in clean energy jobs. “One of the things that’s really great about this solar farm and the work of AllEarth Renewables is the number of jobs that go into such a venture,” says Andrew Savage, the company’s director of communications and public affairs. “It’s exciting for all of us to see clean energy manufacturing and jobs growing within the state.” The company employs 26 full-time staff and 5 seasonal staff and has manufactured and installed over 800 solar tracker systems.
Jeanne Morrissey, president of J.A. Morrissey, spoke emotionally of the significance of such local, collaborative efforts for working class families in this era of economic recession: “To have to have conversations over whether we are going to heat the house or going to feed our kids is a really hard conversation … Jobs mean the ability to stay in a home and raise a family.”
Smaller versions of the AllSun Tracker panels are effective in residential settings. A single 4.1-kilowatt tracker produces about 490 kilowatts per month – greater than half of an average Vermont household’s energy consumption, according to estimates by the Vermont Department of Public Service. The panels are also designed for net metering: The electricity generated is routed first to the owner’s residence or business. Any excess is fed back into the grid and is effectively sold back to the utility in credits as the owner’s electric meter runs backward.
To offset the cost of installing residential systems, AllEarth Renewables offers power purchase agreements. Customers pay a reduced amount of $4,400 up front for the panel and over the next five years pay for the solar power they produce at a cost equal to what they would have paid the electric utility. At the end of the five-year period, customers can renew the agreement for five more years or purchase the panel at fair market value, estimated to be 30 percent of the original price. If a customer decides to purchase the panel, half of the up-front payment ($2,200) is credited towards the purchase.
Each panel is equipped with a wireless reporting system that transmits daily data on energy production. This data provides current owners with information about their own trackers’ production and also allows prospective owners to gauge the production that they can expect.
Encouraged by the demand for solar technology within the state, AllEarth Renewables is planning to expand beyond Vermont. The company hopes that out-of-state demand will allow it to increase manufacturing capacity and hire more employees while remaining rooted in Vermont.
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 7, 2011