Energy

In This State: Leigh Seddon’s 35 years in the solar power biz

Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.

Leigh Seddon, you could say, made hay while the sun shone.

Leigh Seddon, outside his home in Montpelier on a cloudy day with flurries, says Vermont’s solar future remains nothing if not bright. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren
Leigh Seddon, outside his home in Montpelier on a cloudy day with flurries, says Vermont’s solar future remains nothing if not bright. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

For 35 years he has been a solar enthusiast, visionary, entrepreneur and consultant – in short, one of Vermont’s chief proponents of harnessing sunshine to create electricity. He has seen solar grow in Vermont from the simple photovoltaic systems installed by off-grid back-to-the-land types of yore to the now, seemingly ubiquitous rooftop displays and those solar “orchards” with thousands of panels.

“Solar ‘orchards’ are everywhere. It’s just exploding,” he says, sitting in the kitchen of his home in Montpelier, a house powered by solar. His roof – its actual weathering surface – consists of glass modules producing more than 100 percent of what he and his wife need, the surplus continually feeding Green Mountain Power Corp., but available as a credit if needed.

“So I joke that I need an electric vehicle,” says Seddon, 63, who grew up in the Boston area and was part of the “drop-out” generation who came to Vermont in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

As surely as a Vermont pond reflects sunlight on a bright July day, Seddon’s interest reflects a remarkable trend.

“Four years ago, we were at 4 megawatts of solar in this state; now we are at 87, and in two years we will likely be at 150 megawatts,” he says. That amount would be nearly a fourth of the 620 megawatts that the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant would produce at peak.

“Who would believe this in cloudy old Vermont!” he says.

Not surprisingly, solar advocacy groups rate Vermont among the top dozen best states in terms of solar policies and per-capita solar production. Last year, one group, the Solar Foundation, a national research organization, declared Vermont tops in terms of solar jobs per capita.

Seddon is the principal of L.W. Seddon, a renewable-energy consultancy that advises utilities, lenders and developers on the efficacy of proposed solar sites and installations. His connection to the solar power business goes way back to 1980 when he co-founded Solar Works, a partnership that grew to become one of the larger solar corporations in the Northeast. (Three years ago Solar Works was sold to Real Good Solar, a Colorado-based company.)

Leigh Seddon, in this 1984 photo, tests the solar array that Solar Works installed for water pumping in Yemen. Seddon is surrounded by the Yemeni engineers whom Solar Works was training. Provided photo
Leigh Seddon, in this 1984 photo, tests the solar array that Solar Works installed for water pumping in Yemen. Seddon is surrounded by the Yemeni engineers whom Solar Works was training. Provided photo

Before any of this, in the mid-1970s, Seddon, fresh from school (resource economics, University of Vermont) was the environmental director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. Among his assignments for VPIRG was lobbying in the Legislature to strengthen the bottle bill and to pass a ban on phosphate detergents, a source of water pollution.

“It took two years to pass the phosphate bill (1977); it was stressful, and I figured there had to be another way to promote environmental change,” he says. He had one of those light-bulb moments a year or so later after helping a friend install a couple of rudimentary solar panels, with battery, to light a cabin in Colorado: Why not make a living of this?

Seddon began doing passive solar building design and renovation and installing solar water heaters. He established Solar Works as a small business selling solar hot-water systems and photovoltaics.

In a folksy down-home style, Solar Works on weekends offered do-it-yourself workshops, complete with Friday night spaghetti dinners and instructive slideshows. On Saturdays, on sawhorses in the company’s Montpelier parking lot, clients learned to assemble their own hot-water systems.

The company grew to 16 employees by 1984 and eventually some 250 by 2010 as Solar Works worked on projects in Vermont, out of state, and in South Africa, Yemen and India.

By 2005, the company was installing big commercial systems for companies from National Life of Vermont to Whole Foods in California.

U.S. interest has largely flowed and ebbed with government policies, says Seddon. After the 1970s energy crisis, for example, Congress enacted a 40 percent tax credit and Vermont a 25 percent credit on solar products and installations, providing a huge boost.

Later, during the Reagan administration, the tax credits were scaled back dramatically, which put a brake for a while on Seddon’s growing domestic business, and spurred his work abroad.

In Vermont, new measures have been instituted to promote solar and other sources of alternative energy, among the most noteworthy being the advent 15 years ago of net metering – which permits owners of small installations to produce renewable power and put any surplus on the grid to obtain credits. Net metering in Vermont and elsewhere allowed Solar Works to take off.

Other inducements have included state grants and a sales tax exemption on renewable-energy equipment. And, starting next year, residential solar installations won’t be considered in the appraised value of residences.

Seddon points out that a major federal incentive – the 30 percent tax credit on all installations – is scheduled to drop to10 percent in 2017, which may take some glow off solar. “There will be a bump, a drop,” he says.

Leigh Seddon, right, joins Gov. Howard Dean in commissioning the state’s first solar array in May 1994, at the General Services Center in Middlesex. Provided photo
Leigh Seddon, right, joins Gov. Howard Dean in commissioning the state’s first solar array in May 1994, at the General Services Center in Middlesex. Provided photo

Despite Vermont’s celebrated support for the environment and renewable energy, solar orchards or “farms” can be controversial. A solar orchard is not exactly a sunny field with trees producing big red Macs and Macouns. One person’s handsome stretch of technology, with futuristic promise, is another’s eyesore.

Residents of several towns, among them Charlotte, Rutland and New Haven, have balked in recent months at proposed sites and some residents were even surprised to learn that solar developments are not governed by local zoning laws or even Act 250, the state’s development-control law.

Instead, large-scale solar development falls under Section 248, the statute dealing with gas and power investments and facilities. It’s the state Public Service Board that decides whether a proposal is appropriate to a site and beneficial to the state as a whole.

In New Haven, officials adjusted the town plan to limit solar projects to under 300 kilowatts, evidence that towns “want more control over solar,” says Seddon. They are unhappy that their wishes “can be overridden by the PSB.”

Still, Seddon, the advocate, wonders whether time will solve some of the concerns as it did back in the 1960s when people voiced concern about the huge blue harvester silos then cropping up in barnyards, putting a crimp in the pastoral farm scenery.

Eventually, the silos were accepted as a critical part of farming. “I would like to think of solar as part of the new working landscape because it can support farms and jobs and business and still be compatible with our rural heritage,” he says.

Still, Seddon says, solar installers are feeling the pressure and looking for less in-your-face sites, farther from homes or scenic roadways.

How long will the solar boom last? A long time, guesses Seddon, along with worries about climate change.

He predicts growth of renewable wind power energy (125 megawatts capacity now in Vermont) will be constrained. The opposition to building wind towers on ridgelines, where they are most effective, has become too strong.

And that might mean solar could stay hot despite the expected reduction in federal tax credits.

The price certainly is right.

“The panel price (about half of installation cost) has dropped from $4 per watt 10 years ago to 75 cents per watt today, and that’s about as low as it will be with current technology,” says Seddon.

So, yes, start imagining electric cars. Certainly, hang on to your electric toothbrush.

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Dirk Van Susteren

About Dirk

Dirk Van Susteren is a freelance writer and editor, who has 30 years experience in Vermont journalism. For years he was the editor of Vermont’s Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus, assigning stories dealing with the environment, agriculture, politics, energy, health care and a host of other topics important to Vermonters. He assembled teams of writers and photographers to produce books for the Herald and Times Argus, including A Vermont Century: Photographs and Essays from the Green Mountain State and Howard Dean: A Citizen’s Guide to the Man Who Would Be President. During his career Van Susteren has been the publisher of a weekly newspaper, The Suburban List in Essex Junction; an editor at the Providence Journal (R.I.); and a writer for United Press International. His freelance stories have appeared in various publications, including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Northern Woodlands magazine, Saltscapes of Nova Scotia and AMC Outdoors. Van Susteren has taught writing at Community College of Vermont and in the University of Vermont Summer Writing Program. He is a native of Appleton, WI. and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his wife Marialisa Calta live in Calais.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Paul Donovan

    We’re lucky to have Lee with us. Such a long history of contribution to Vermont and it’s climate and people…and the music, too! Thanks, Lee, keep it up.

  • Annette Smith

    Unfortunately for Vermont, the public’s growing opposition to solar is not simply about aesthetics. Yes, many people compare them to billboards so the plan to educate (i.e. berate) Vermonters telling them that they have to come around to seeing solar as beautiful is not going to work.

    Big solar development is much more insidious though, the way it is being done, as put into law by the legislature and interpreted by the PSB. It is the loss of community, the corporate developers coming in getting everything while the public is ignored almost entirely by the PSB. Renewable energy development is being done in a way that has destroyed our democratic process and many Vermonters are dismayed, saddened, upset, and without hope where the solar industry is concerned.

    It should not be lost on utilities or policy makers that the conditions we are experiencing right now have iced up the wind turbines and covered solar panels in snow, and even after the snow has shed, it is too cloudy to create much electricity. This is a harsh reality that needs to be taken into account and not brushed off as coming from people who oppose having renewable energy in their communities.

    While this storm might be called unprecedented, my experience of 25+ years living off-grid with solar is that extended cloudy periods between November to the end of January are the norm, not the exception.

  • Richard Ratico

    Annette,

    “iced up the wind turbines”

    Check out the Georgia Mountain winter production.

  • Annette Smith

    Go look at them today. They are covered in ice. Haven’t operated to produce electricity for days. Drawing power from the grid.

    • Glenn Thompson

      Direct from the horse’s mouth. A Georgia Mountain resident has confirmed Georgia Mountain wind turbines haven’t operated since last Monday/Tuesday…most likely due to ‘ice’! That should bite into the overall capacity factor and winter production of Georgia mountain! On the plus side, those residents being affected by the ‘noise’ have experienced ‘peace and quiet’ for a week…which is the reason they wanted to live out in the country to begin with!

  • Richard Ratico

    Consider an alternative:
    “In 2011, the average time it took a facility to conduct a refueling outage was 43 days.”
    http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2012/05/what-happens-during-refueling-outage.html

    • Glenn Thompson

      Yes….let’s look at the alternatives!

      “For the second consecutive year, a planned refueling outage at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station has been completed in record time. This year’s Unit 2 spring refueling outage began on Saturday, April 5, and was completed Saturday, May 3 – in a total time of 28 days, 22 hours.”

      http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20140515006109/en/Straight-Year-Palo-Verde-Sets-Mark-Outage#.VI8vwyvF_K0

      Now…let’s look at Palo-Verde’s performance record!

      “PHOENIX – For the 22nd consecutive year, Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station was the nation’s largest power producer, generating 31.4 million megawatt-hours in 2013. With this milestone, Palo Verde remains the only U.S. generating facility to ever produce more than 30 million megawatt-hours in a year – an operational accomplishment the plant has achieved on nine separate occasions.”

      Also from the same article! Palo Verde’s Capacity factor!

      “The unit also achieved a 94.78 percent capacity factor, the highest of all plants in the world top 10 rankings. Capacity factor is an important measure of output and efficiency.”

      https://www.aps.com/en/ourcompany/news/latestnews/Pages/palo-verde-unit-2-ranked-as-top-us-generator-for-2013.aspx

      Now Richard, go out and find me just ONE wind turbine or Solar Panel that operates at a Capacity Factor anywhere’s near 95%? And how many days during an entire year does a wind turbine NOT produce any power due to a lack of wind..or a Solar Panel that does NOT produce any power due to constant cloud cover or the sun is on the other side of the planet?????

      • Richard Ratico

        Glenn,

        Post Fukushima, find me one nuke has private insurance for $500 Billion in potential liability.

        • Glenn Thompson

          Richard, you are ignoring the discussion and diverting off the subject!

          You’re the one who brought up the refueling process for a nuclear power plant. I countered showing how refueling times have been reduced using one Nuclear Power plant as an example. I then proceeded to show the overall capacity factor of the same plant…..and then asked you to compare ‘down time’ for refueling a Nuclear Power plant to that of wind and Solar based on the amount (or lack) of sun and wind availability…and at the same time asked you to compare the capacity factor of Palo Verde to that of any solar and wind project currently in existence! Again….can you find any solar panel or wind turbine capable of achieving anywhere’s near a 95% Capacity factor??

          The insurance issue is discussion for another time!

          • Richard Ratico

            Glenn,

            A solar and wind based grid can work well with their present capacity factors. Theres no need to look farther or to depend on nukes regardless their capacity factor.
            http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/

            Capacity factor is a small “factor” in the decision to choose or reject nukes.

            “Sweden (1980) was the first country to begin a phase-out (influenced by the Three Mile Island accident), followed by Italy (1987), Belgium (1999), and Germany (2000). Austria and Spain have enacted laws to cease construction on new nuclear power stations. Several other European countries have debated phase-outs.

            Following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany has permanently shut down eight of its 17 reactors and pledged to close the rest by the end of 2022.[2] Italy voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear.[3] Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors.[4]”
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_phase-out

  • Annette Smith

    In the context of the New England grid in 2011, there were oil, gas and other nuclear plants to run.

    Times have changed. We as a state are embarking on a plan to heavily rely on renewables. The oil and coal plants are shutting down and so is VY. I am not a defender of VY but I a realist when it comes to the challenges of relying on wind and solar during cloudy, snowy, icy winter months.

  • Richard Ratico

    Annette,

    You seem to miss my point. Specifically, there are and will be alternatives to solar and wind when they are not available, just as there are now when a nuke needs to be refueled.

    Once, twice, three times again I refer you and others to a comprehensive plan to rely on wind and solar year-round.

    “Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.”

    The 110 authors of this report are realists too.
    http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/

    • Annette Smith

      I gather you love natural gas then. Because that’s the plan so far, wind and natural gas (with a little solar and hydro) according to ISO-NE http://www.iso-ne.com/aboutiso/fin/annl_reports/2000/2014_reo.pdf. See the graph on page 16.

      • Richard Ratico

        Annette,

        Don’t love it. Would love to use a LOT less of it. We can if we make the right decisions.

      • Glenn Thompson

        Re: Page 16 of ISO-NE report!

        95% of new generation proposals consist of wind and NG! YIKES!

        40% from wind??? I’d be curious to learn where that 40% is going to come from? Offshore? Even if Cape Wind was to come online…it would only provide 1% of the total ISO-NE power demand!

      • John Greenberg

        Annette,

        ISO’s figures cover all of NE, not just VT. Our dependence on hydro is MUCH larger than the general figures for ISO and hydro, unlike natural gas, IS a renewable resource.

  • Bill Gardyne

    Without a viable technology coming along that will allow for the storage of electricity produced by wind and solar, its value as a true alternative energy source is extremely limited. Why spend all this money to build wind mills on mountain tops and solar farms if you still need to have matching dedicated fossil fuel generating facilites to keep the lights on when the sun doesn’t shine and wind doesn’t blow. Every KW produced by wind/solar needs to be consumed at the time of generation. Electrical grids aren’t batteries…

    • Annette Smith

      I have storage but this recent cloudy spell has required me to run the gasoline generator. Sun came out Saturday which was brief but enough to avoid generator usage Saturday or Sunday, but had to run it today for a couple hours. I have no idea how big my battery bank would have to be to offset the generator need, but I’m guessing it just wouldn’t make sense.

  • Richard Ratico

    Bill,

    “Why spend all this money to build wind mills on mountain tops and solar farms if you still need to have matching dedicated fossil fuel generating facilities?”

    Simply because you won’t need as many of them and for 80% of generation they won’t operate. We’ve already got them. They’ll be used for backup only.

    Storage looks to be much closer than a new nuke.

    “Electrical grids aren’t batteries…”

    If the grid is large enough, it moves excess generation to loads. This already happens in Europe.

    Our grid needs to be upgraded anyway. Let’s build it to do its job with solar and wind.

    • Electric grid is so 19th century technology.

    • Annette Smith

      So now we have a grid in distress, and no solar and no wind. Not a good combination if you want reliable electricity.

      • Richard Ratico

        Annette,

        What would you propose?

        • Annette Smith

          Richard, thank you for asking.

          What I think Vermont should be doing now is working on the community level to site local solar that directly serves Vermonters. This is the exact opposite of how it is being done now, with big companies coming in — Allco’s Ecos Energy, groSolar, SunEdison are some examples — and getting Standard Offer contracts with no site review that locks the project into the site and eventually after the project is built, it is sold into the grid and in most cases the RECs are sold too.

          Vermonters ask “but how can we benefit, how can we buy the power, we want solar, and we want to be a part of choosing the sites.”

          What I am suggesting regarding solar turns the whole formula upside down, and starts with serving our communities, working collaboratively with developers, and building projects that Vermonters can buy power from.

          Beyond solar, I do not believe that we are limited to the current renewable technologies. Think about what computers were like a decade ago and what they are like now. Why have we not seen equivalent leaps in energy technologies. I think they exist and have been suppressed by oil and nuclear interests. Lockheed Martin is reported to have all kinds of space age technologies that would be game changers.

          I am optimistic that better technologies will solve our energy problems in the near future. Meanwhile, covering our fields and forests (yes, there are two proposals by Allco’s Ecos Energy that each call for clear-cutting 40 acres of trees) with solar and our mountains with wind turbines is short-sighted, especially when there is no evidence that these renewables are meeting their promise in terms of addressing climate change.

          Do we want to create electricity for Vermonters? Do we want to save the planet? The assumption is that wind and solar can do both. If we could get away from the tit for tat useless discussions that pit fossil fuels & nuclear against renewables and elevate the conversation to one that grapples with the issues presented by renewables and listens to the people who are having to directly deal with having these corporate carpet-baggers in their communities leaving no evident benefits except for the”greater good”, I think we could build out solar throughout Vermont in a way that everyone could benefit.

          Some people want to approach energy with the idea that we only have what we have and there is no point in thinking there will ever be anything else. I think that is a sad commentary on human ingenuity. I choose hope over despair.

          • Glenn Thompson

            Annette,

            Your ideas on solar makes more sense than filling Vt’s open fields with solar panels. And I certainly agree with your comment that states…

            “Meanwhile, covering our fields and forests (yes, there are two proposals by Allco’s Ecos Energy that each call for clear-cutting 40 acres of trees) with solar and our mountains with wind turbines is short-sighted,”

            That statement nails my feelings exactly!

            I found this comment of yours interesting!

            “Why have we not seen equivalent leaps in energy technologies. I think they exist and have been suppressed by oil and nuclear interests. Lockheed Martin is reported to have all kinds of space age technologies that would be game changers.”

            I’ve been following technology developments since my college days. I find many of the promising technologies created either on a small scale or in the lab….fizzle out when the application attempts to go ‘larger scale’. In most cases it is due to various drawbacks, safety issues, economics, or a combination of all. I constantly hear about technologies being withheld by oil companies, etc. I have yet to find any proof of any technology hidden away! If a technology is feasible and can be developed large scale….someone will market it ASAP to make money! I always think back to the 70’s when it was reported numerous times, the oil companies was suppressing that ‘magic’ 100 MPG Carburetor that would have solved the gas shortages of that time period!

            As for Lockhead Martin and their space-age technologies…..I found this! But Richard isn’t going to like it! 🙂

            http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/news/10.1063/PT.5.8077

          • Richard Ratico

            Annette,

            “I think they exist and have been suppressed by oil and nuclear interests. Lockheed Martin is reported to have all kinds of space age technologies that would be game changers.”

            This is extremely disappointing news, Annette. There is absolutely no point in debating “ghosts”. The evidence for such is completely absent. A choice between solar and wind which work well and something that doesn’t even exist is a no brainer.

            There is another individual that posts here, who I will not name, who also subscribes to existence of mysterious suppressed technologies. He links to a site that sells DVDs about UFOs. His theory seems to be, if the little green men can do it, why can’t we?

            My teenagers used to get worked up over their Ouiga board.
            This is the same kind of stuff.

    • Richard Ratico

      Steve,

      “As renewable electricity generation increases, additional transmission infrastructure is required to deliver generation from cost-effective remote renewable resources to load centers, enable reserve sharing over greater distances, and smooth output profiles of variable resources by enabling greater geospatial diversity.”
      Volume 1, page XVIII
      http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/

      Denmark’s electrical grid is connected by transmission lines to other European countries,[8] and has according to the World Economic Forum the best energy security in the EU.[9]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_Denmark

  • Just because some minds find it a challenge to fathom the immensity of reality, and go out of their way to avoid said challenge,
    doesn`t mean it doesn`t exist.

    Don Philips, inside Lockheed Skunkworks, USAF, CIA, not a little green man.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAqpVweK3tk

    • Richard Ratico

      Don Phillips is a white man talking about UFOs.

      Aliens, AKA “little green men” drive these. I’m not buying the DVD Kevin.

      Have them come to town meeting in March.