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Credit union, Soveren team up on new solar array

GUILFORD—On a sunny, brisk, late-October morning, Vermont State Employee Credit Union CEO Rob Miller and VGreen Program Director Laurie Fielder flipped the switch on a new, 500-kW solar array on a high, grassy hill in Guilford center.

Cheering them on were interested spectators, other representatives from the credit union, property owner Will Wohnus, and Soveren Solar President Peter Thurrell and his workers.

All three entities benefit from the arrangement — Soveren, the Dummerston-based solar company, which installed the array; Wohnus, who owns the property and signed a 30-year lease with Soveren for the project’s three acres; and the credit union, which will receive enough power from the 2,590 panels to provide electricity for all of its offices.

Although the switch-flipping was more ritual than reality — the project went on-line this month — the ceremony, complete with Champagne and apple cider, marked a unique partnership between the credit union and Soveren Solar.

“This is a very high-energy, sophisticated project,” Thurrell said, noting the $1 million-plus array can power the equivalent of 100 households. Its power will go into the Green Mountain Power grid, and the credit goes on the credit union’s account as part of the utility’s net-metering plan. “It’s as if [the credit union] managed to put solar panels on all of [their] locations,” Thurrell said.

Keeping it local

This project keeps the renewable energy in Vermont, Miller said during the ceremony.

The array’s components are even more local. Thurrell told attendees the solar panels were invented by his company, and Soveren’s System Designer Simon Piluski noted the construction crew is “all Windham County,” and “the panels are put together in our shop in Dummerston."

Miller said this project fits in with the nonprofit, member-owned credit union’s goal to promote environmentally sound options for its staff and customers.

But, as the credit union’s Website explains, not-for-profit companies can’t receive the 30 percent federal renewable-energy tax credit offered to for-profits.

This is where Soveren, a for-profit, saves the day.

“Our agreement with Soveren Solar enables [them] to take the tax credit. In return, Soveren Solar has agreed to sell us the net metering credits at a discount,” for the first five-and-a-half years, the credit union said in a news release.

During the sixth year, the credit union can opt to purchase the energy credits from Soveren at market rate.

The company plans to retire the energy credits, Miller announced at the ceremony.

The move prevents businesses from using these credits to offset their carbon-based energy use. Entities can trade or barter renewable-energy credits, and the owner of the credits can claim the energy represented by the credits is sourced from renewable generation.

As the credit union’s website notes, “In this way, a company that relies 100 percent on nonrenewable energy can claim that 50 percent of their energy is renewable if they purchase enough credits to offset 50 percent of their nonrenewable energy."

Good energy

Peter Thurrell thanked the credit union at the ceremony, and noted working with financial institutions is often the hardest part of a project, but he found credit union staff helpful and easy to work with.

“It’s rare an institution does the thing that doesn’t generate the most money, but generates the most good,” Thurrell said.

Wohnus also expressed satisfaction with “the VSECU connection,” adding, “their philosophy is good."

As Thurrell took attendees on a walking tour through the array, he mentioned that the solar panels are installed on hinged posts, allowing for twice-yearly manual tilting to “catch the sun and remove the snow,” he said.

When asked about the project’s genesis, Thurrell said Wohnus contacted his company after “hearing about another 500-kW array.” Thurrell said Wohnus told him, “I have a field."

“This field is perfect,” Thurrell said, explaining, “you get dawn-to-dusk exposure, and there aren’t many places in Vermont” with that feature.

The field’s proximity to Guilford Center Road’s three-phase power system also helped, he said.

Although Thurrell said the field “in many ways is a highly likely site” for the project, the array’s specific location got moved around a bit. “We moved it from down the hill” and arranged it around a wetland area to not disrupt it, and adjusted the location further to avoid sight-lines from a neighbor’s property, Thurrell said.

Preserving the landscape

“This project enables this field to stay green,” Wohnus said, noting David and Mary Ellen Franklin, of Franklin Farm, can still harvest organic hay on the land surrounding the array. “If I sold it to a developer, it would have houses all over it,” Wohnus added.

“It could always go back to agricultural use if the solar failed or the lease is over. All of what you see here can be removed in a few weeks’ time,” he said.

“With housing,” Wohnus said, the parcel’s agricultural future “is done.”

Wohnus bought the parcel about 15 years ago, during a series of purchases he made of two other adjacent properties, to prevent the development of what once was a 200-acre farm sitting on the corner of Guilford Center and Creamery roads.

After the purchase, Wohnus said, he received three offers for the field where the solar array is sited. “A McMansion, cover the entire field with solar panels, or subdivide,” which would have put what he called “ticky-tacky houses” all over the property. “I said, ‘No.’”

“Peter [Thurrell] is the only one” who arranged the array to “not cover the whole field,” Wohnus said, noting Thurrell “was the most responsive and creative” in making the project work.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #383 (Wednesday, November 16, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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