Vermont solar farm opening generates positive energy from community, state leaders

South Burlington's new twenty-five acre solar farm promises to generate a reported 2.2 megawatts of electricity for the state, enough to power roughly 450 homes. VTD/Eric Blokland

South Burlington's new twenty-five acre solar farm promises to generate a reported 2.2 megawatts of electricity for the state, enough to power roughly 450 homes. VTD/Eric Blokland

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.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin hailed the project as an example of how Vermont makes the planet sustainable and livable. VTD/Eric Blokland

Gov. Peter Shumlin hailed the project as an example of how Vermont makes the planet sustainable and livable. VTD/Eric Blokland

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.

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  • The tracking PV solar facility production is 2,200 kW x 8,760 x 0.143 x 1.4 = 3,858,254 kWh/yr, assuming no down time for O&M and no reduction due to snow and ice.

    382 trackers x 24 panels each =9,168 panels
    Land area 25 acres

    Capital cost $12,000,000, or 5,454/kW
    Federal and state subsidies at least $5,000,000

    This power will be sold to the utility at the 0.30/kWh feed-in-tariff.
    Revenue = 3,858,254 kWh/yr x $0.30/kWh = $1,157,476

    Net investment by owners $7,000,000, most of it borrowed.

    It is clear this project is of great benefit to the owners, at the cost higher electric rates and higher taxes for every one else.

    • Willem Post

      Here are some operating data of the South Burlington Solar System, 2,200 kW (DC), from the DPS SPEED site:

      2011 CF = 0.165, production 1,831,289 kWh, 7 months
      2012 CF = 0.174, production 3,358,133 kWh
      2013 CF = 0.162, production 3,120,628 kWh
      2014 CF not known, as two low-production months are still missing.

      Jul/Dec production ratio = 4.94

      The FIXED-AXIS Ferrisburgh 4-year average CF = 0.151

      Jul/Dec production ratio = 3.80

      The 2-axis tracker system, about 25% more costly, should have done much better. According to company literature, up to 45% better!!

      The Ferrisburgh lower production ratio is more desirable.

  • Dennis Bowen

    This is another example of the poor and middle class getting screwed by politicians catering to the rich by making them richer in order to build their re-election campaign money chests.

    We get to pay more so that we are driven by penury into suffering scarce electricity, because it is extremely expensive electricity we most of us cannot afford.

    Meanwhile millionaires like Al Gore and Bernie Sanders live high on the tax payers’ backs while loudly proclaiming they are helping us.

    Denny Bowen

    • Hi Denny,
      Based on his tax filings, Bernie Sanders is not a millionaire, as far as I can tell.

  • Anne,
    Blittersdorf who supplied the hardware for the solar facility is a multi-millionaire who threatened to move out of state if he did not get his multi-million subsidies from CEDC.

  • Mike Kerin

    You folks against the solar farm are saying that it was subsidized. Well , I say it’s about time we subsidized solar and other renewable energy sources , we already subsidize nuclear and oil and coal.

    You complain that the people who did the solar farm are multi millionaires . But the people who invest in nuclear, oil, and coal are multi billionaires. I think you make profits from nuclear, oil, or coal. (just a guess)

  • Mike,
    When a cloud passes over the solar panels, output drops to near zero.
    When snow falls on the panels output drops to near zero.
    When it is night output drops to zero.

    To subsidize such a power source is irrational, as there are relatively low-cost energy efficiency measures that would reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions at a lower cost, that are effective 24/7/365 for many, many years, much longer than the useful service lives of PV panels which last about 25 years but have decreasing outputs year after year.

    The first comment does not register, the second comes back as a duplicate, did my comment go to the spam file again?

  • Irene Gadapee

    before you complain have a better solution, in the past year my CVPS electricity is gone up 40 for no reason, i now pay $200 a month for electricity but i live in the dark most of the time. Solar is free down the road.

  • Jeanene Irving

    My husband and I have recently committed to Solar Powering our home through “Real Goods Solar”. This company has made it affordable for the average person, so please join Vermont homeowners and at least call for a quote. Jeanene & Stephen Irving, Georgia, VT.

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