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Sharing the sun

Community-owned solar array planned for Putney

PUTNEY—Solar power may not suit every house. The house may sit in a shaded location, or the occupants may rent rather than own the building. Or, sometimes, purchasing solar panels extends beyond the household budget.

Does this mean the door to solar has been shut to such homes?

Not necessarily, said Nick Ziter, founder of Putney-based SunFarm Community Solar, LLC.

Ziter aims to construct a community photovoltaic array in Putney. The community-owned solar project would generate electricity for the grid, said Ziter. The project should be constructed by the end of November and online by the end of the year.

According to Ziter, the community-owned solar field idea sprouted from one of his relatives wanting to install solar. The relative’s house, however, was in a shady area with northern exposure. Ziter said he assumed that Vermont, like California or Germany, had community solar fields in which the relative could invest.

“I gave the advice to invest in a solar collective, assuming that they existed. As it turns out, they do not. After talking to a number of community members who all had the desire to invest in solar, but for a variety of reasons were unable to, I decided it was time for Putney to have its own solar collective,” he wrote on his SunFarm website.

Those who purchase shares in the project receive a cut in their household electric bill proportionate to the number of shares purchased, he said.

Vermonters like solar, but can’t always install it at their own homes, Ziter said.

“And I thought I should change that,” he said.

Solar panels can prove too expensive to install with starting costs around $15,000, Ziter said. Also, one out of three people rents their homes, he added.

By investing in a solar field, the credit on a shareholder’s utility bill is not dependent on the solar panel’s location.

According to information from SunFarm’s website, “Rather than individual [solar] arrays scattered around the rooftops of Vermont, we’re working with communities to construct large solar collectives that anyone can participate in.”

“By working together, we bring the cost down. And through prime field location, we bump the efficiency up. What this all adds up to is easily accessible solar electricity for less than buying from the fossil fuel guys,” said Ziter.

The power grid acts like a “bucket,” said Ziter, collecting electricity from multiple sources. Homes with solar panels on their roof that are tied to the grid don’t use the electricity directly from their panels. Instead, the power feeds into the grid. When the homeowners flick on the lights, the home draws electricity back from the grid, he said.

Each share equates to a 100 watt solar panel. The share entitles the holder to own the rights to their portion of the electric pool for 20 years.

Based on data on U.S. energy usage, Ziter said a 100 watt solar panel will produce about $570 of electricity.

Ten-year payback

Solar often represents a large up-front cost to homeowners with the benefits further down the line. By purchasing shares in his field, Ziter said that the shareholders will earn back their investment, in the form of credits on their electric bills, in 10 years.

Ziter said state and federal tax incentives, in combination with the shares purchased and loans, will make the community solar field possible to construct.

Ziter said Vermont’s Group Net Metering law paved the way for the project.

According to the Public Service Board’s website, in Vermont, net metering means “measuring the difference between the electricity supplied to a customer and the electricity fed back by a net metering system.” Net metering also allows the owners of some small power generating systems, like Ziter’s solar array, to receive credits on their electric bills.

The small power generating systems covered in the law must receive a Certificate of Public Good from the PSB. Ziter said he’s in the process of applying for one for SunFarm.

Ziter grew up in Putney. He graduated in 2009 from the University of Vermont in economics and is working on a master’s degree in architecture with a focus in sustainable design from the University of Oregon.

The field that will house the solar array is located on a parcel of land behind Santa’s Land on Route 5 in Putney.

According to Ziter, the power generated by the solar array will be bought by Green Mountain Power.

To reserve shares in the solar field, Ziter is asking investors for 10 percent of their total investment as a refundable deposit. Ziter said he will place this money in escrow. This investment will help him prove to the banks he hopes to apply to for loans that there is community support, and money, behind the project.

The 150 kilowatt field has available 1,500 shares of 100 watt blocks of power, said Ziter.

He estimates the field is large enough to offset 25 average homes.

This is the 25-year old’s first solar array. He said not many precedents exist in Vermont for community solar and the state lacks a clear path for such community projects. He has had to learn as he goes.

“Figuring out those things can be expensive,” he said.

On a personal level, Ziter said he hopes to see Vermont move toward more centrally located power generation where communities are generating the power they use rather than pulling it from some far away, and often unknown, place.

According to Ziter, district generation of electricity is more efficient because the electricity has a shorter distance to travel from generation point to a home.

Ziter estimates the solar array will cost about half a million dollars. A significant amount of the budget will go toward legal and administrative costs.

To learn more about SunFarm and share pricing, or to contact Ziter, visit http://sunfarmvt.com/ or call 802-536-4471.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #174 (Wednesday, October 17, 2012).

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