Topic: Rutland Herald

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

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

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

From Stump to Consumer: Many Forest Products Take the Long Road to Customers – Rutland Herald Article

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

From Stump to Consumer:  Many Forest Products Take the Long Road to Customers (part 2 of 2)

Nathaniel Gibson

Woodworking, a key industry in Vermont for centuries, is a significant part of the state’s economy. Some environmental considerations include the practices of the loggers and mills harvesting it, as well as where the timber comes from. Timber that travels farther has a bigger carbon footprint. In recent years, various certification standards have been developed to certify lumber as sustainable or “green,” such as those developed by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forest Initiative. The Leadership in Energy Environmental Design certification system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for construction of green buildings.

Ideally, a house would be constructed with local lumber that was either FSC- or SFI-certified and built to LEED specifications. But this process can present some challenges.

J.K. Adams, a manufacturer of wooden kitchenware and furniture in Dorset, was one of the first companies in the industry to be FSC-certified, even though the cost of that certification required the company to raise its prices.

It also had to confront the logistical challenge of isolating FSC-certified lumber from non-FSC-certified lumber.

Maple Landmark Furniture of Middlebury, another company that faced challenges operating under FSC guidelines, eventually dropped its FSC certification because it was very difficult to get certified lumber from local sources.

More FSC-certified lumber is available now – but not consistently.

Tim Copeland of Copeland Furniture in Bradford reports that it is relatively easy to get FSC-certified maple, but some other species, such as walnut, are much more difficult to find.

FSC certification, oriented toward large forests, is costly to obtain. Much of the forest land in Vermont is in small parcels, so each 10- to 25-acre lot must be certified.

Consequently a landowner with a small woodlot often cannot justify the cost of certification, even if that woodlot is being managed in a sustainable manner consistent with FSC requirements.

And unlike some other states, Vermont has not obtained FSC certification for its state forests.

To address this problem, pilot programs are under way to eventually confer FSC status to local foresters who work with small landowners in the state. These foresters could extend FSC status to the people they work with at a much lower cost compared with normal FSC certification.

Other certification systems that are less expensive to obtain – such as the American Tree Farm System – are available.

One of the issues with LEED guidelines, according to Kevin Hastings of Amoskeag Woodworking in Colchester, is that they can dictate the use of nonlocal materials.

For instance, LEED guidelines sometimes require that certain materials used in building construction contain certain percentages of post-consumer-materials recycled content.

In Vermont and many other parts of the Northeast, these materials must be trucked in from distant producers. The carbon emissions generated by trucks as they transport LEED materials to work sites increases the carbon footprint of these “green” materials.

“There’s such a disconnect between the goods we use and where they come from,” observes Malcolm Cooper, president of J.K. Adams.

A LEED-compliant set of cabinets may not be as green as it seems, when the carbon footprint associated with transporting that product is considered. A different set of cabinets that is not LEED-certified might actually be more green, if made by a local woodworker who purchased the lumber from a neighbor’s sawmill that harvested its timber in accordance with sustainable practices.

As Mike Rainville, owner of Maple Landmark Woodcraft, says, “It doesn’t make sense to bring lumber in from 300 miles away when it’s in your backyard.”

Chris Olson, Addison County forester for the Agency of Natural Resources, agrees. Olson points out that harvesting practices in the developed world have largely evolved to the point where many of the related environmental concerns have been mitigated – or at least are addressed by regulations that may or may not be enforced.

Olson notes, “There are forest practices acts, acceptable management practices for protecting water quality, timber harvesting laws and regulations, water quality laws and regulations, FSC, SFI, and many other checks and balances for what happens near the stump. And then we have free trade and all the globalization trends that encourage goods to travel long distances. I would ask these questions: ‘What forest product did you use today? Where’s the stump? Where was it processed and manufactured?'”

Olson describes a typical scenario: “Trees are cut from stumps in Pawlet, limbed and skidded to be loaded onto a truck; trucked to a concentration yard in West Pawlet or Granville, N.Y., trucked or railed to a port, unloaded, loaded onto a ship, shipped across at least one ocean, unloaded, trucked to a concentration yard, unloaded, reloaded onto a truck or rail car, unloaded into a processing plant, sawn, loaded onto a forklift, stuck into a kiln, reloaded onto a truck or rail, unloaded at a furniture plant, manufactured into component parts, boxed, reloaded, trucked or rail freighted again, shipped back across an ocean and then trucked to a big box store. And then I go to that store and buy a chair and assemble it about 30 miles from the stump.”

Local sawmills are closing. David Williams, owner of Champlain Hardwood in Essex Junction, reports that Lakewood Lumber, a big sawmill near Syracuse, N.Y., recently closed because of poor profits and high overseas competition.

Vermont is exporting a larger portion of raw product than ever before.

“Pretty soon we might be exporting more unprocessed high-grade logs – with the bark still on – than we’d have the capacity to saw here in Vermont,” Olson said.

For more information on the link between local wood product producers and Vermont’s environment and working landscape, see the first article in this series, “From forests to furniture: Vermont woodworking businesses tie into the local landscape,” which was published Jan. 16.

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer and locavore who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted at

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
March 6, 2011