As 25 acres of solar panels unhurriedly traced the sun behind him, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday said Vermont “cannot move fast enough” to preserve the planet. Shumlin seized on the launch of Vermont’s largest solar farm — and reputedly the largest solar farm of its kind in North America — to push for a swift, statewide transition to renewable power.
Hailing Vermont’s largest solar farm as “a small example of how we make our planet sustainable and livable,” the governor told an audience of developers, lawmakers and neighbors in South Burlington that rising interest in renewable power represents jobs and economic growth for Vermonters.
“If you look at Vermont historically, we didn’t get all that much from the Industrial Revolution. We didn’t get all that much from the technology boom. But we’re going to harvest a piece of this one like you’ve never seen before. That’s our future, and that’s what we celebrate at this farm today.”
The solar farm, located on South Burlington’s Dubois Drive, harvests around 2.2 MW of power — enough for 450 Vermont homes, according to the developer — from some 9,000 panels. The panels are grouped in rectangles of 24 that perch on poles mounted in rows throughout what was once a hayfield.
Three hundred and eighty-two of the so-called AllSun Trackers, manufactured by AllEarth Renewables of Williston, tilt and spin on a dual-axis system: an attached GPS allows the panels to track the sun, granting an additional 40 percent efficiency over fixed solar arrays. Fifteen miles of underground conduits collect the energy and shuttle it under a nearby marsh to connect with Green Mountain Power’s grid.
Trackers have been used in Europe, but in the United States they’re not considered the way to do things. What we’re doing in Vermont is showing the rest of the U.S. how to do renewables.”
– David Blittersdorf
CEO, AllEarth Renewables
AllEarth CEO and founder Dave Blittersdorf echoed Shumlin’s push to move Vermont quickly toward alternative energy generation, and touted the state’s Standard Offer program that incentivizes renewables. Vermont’s Legislature passed the program in 2009 under that year’s Vermont Energy Act. The policy, said Blittersdorf, “allows us to transition from finite fossil fuels and nuclear power that we’re using to generate electricity.”
Shumlin, too, urged Vermont to stop relying on “old, aging nuclear power plants run by companies that seem to have trouble telling the truth.” Vermont dubbed hydro-electric generation of any scale “renewable” in 2010, and Vermont’s largest electric utilities subsequently contracted with Hydro-Quebec for up to 225 MW of power beginning in 2012.
Vermont is also trying to meet state and regional benchmarks, such as generating 20 percent of the state’s electricity load with renewables by 2017 under the Sustainably Priced Energy Development Program, or SPEED. Local wind projects would provide a significant portion of that load, although opposition to ridge-top turbines has slowed progress.
Shumlin was blunt but sanguine about Vermont’s energy future, citing federal money for smart-grid development and a 30 percent taxpayer share in VELCO, Vermont’s transmission company, if Gaz Metro successfully merges GMP and Central Vermont Public Service. “We’re sitting here with an antiquated grid and a system that you would never design for today’s energy future,” he said. “We’re working on it. We’re probably going to have to invest in transmission that is designed for small, community-based power, because that’s really the future.”
On the stage with Shumlin and Blittersdorf were Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who helped manufacture one of the trackers over the winter, House Speaker Shap Smith, South Burlington City Council chair Sandra Dooley, and J.A. Morrissey president Jeanne Morrissey, whose company contracted with AllEarth to develop the site.
The $12 million project is the largest yet undertaken by AllEarth (an unrelated, in-the-works solar farm for the National Guard at the Burlington Airport may soon surpass the capacity of the Dubois Drive site). Blittersdorf, who previously founded NRG Systems, said in late May that his business has been tripling each year.
“Trackers have been used in Europe, but in the United States they’re not considered the way to do things,” he told the audience on Wednesday. “What we’re doing in Vermont is showing the rest of the U.S. how to do renewables.”
The solar farm abuts a rolling housing development shielded by a swath of trees. Judith Breitmeyer, a Dubois Drive resident for 26 years, spoke up to praise the project, calling it the “best neighbor we’ve ever had.”
Neither she nor the city of South Burlington had a choice, however: solar developments are exempt from municipal oversight. Although supportive of the project from the beginning, City Council chair Dooley said she wasn’t aware of any way for South Burlington to opt out. “If there had been an opportunity to say no, there would’ve also been an opportunity to say yes,” she said.
To her knowledge, the city has received no complaints about the solar farm, although lightning has posed a problem throughout the summer. A May 26 thunderstorm — part of the same system that ravaged much of central Vermont — knocked out a tracker and turned the site to mud. Clay soils continue to hinder grass growth and revegetation, thwarting plans to encourage birds to fledge in the area, said a site worker.
“We’re excited to see the grass come back,” said Breitmeyer. Before construction, “there were moose, deer, coyotes and fox.” AllEarth intends to work with the Public Service Board on a PSB-required perimeter fence, hoping to allay any effect the fence will have on wildlife migration.