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Community Solar to take root in Putney

Local and Colorado-based companies join forces to start state’s first community array

For more information on the Putney Community Solar Array, visit www.VTSolarGardens.com, write info@VTSolarGardens.com, or call 802-536-4471. To learn more about CEC, or to calculate how much a panel might offset your electric bill, visit www.easycleanenergy.com.

PUTNEY—Vermont’s first community solar garden will pump out the power by August.

The solar array differs from other installations in the state as multiple people will own individual photovoltaic panels within the farm.

The 146 kilowatt (kW), 588-panel, photovoltaic array will provide its multiple owners access to renewable energy and a potential break on their electric bills.

Panels cost $813 each and financing is available.

According to Nick Ziter, founder of SunFarm Community Solar, the photovoltaic system, located behind Santa’s Land on Route 5, will be the first of its kind in Vermont.

Community solar allows renters, people whose properties are shaded, and households on tighter budgets to benefit from solar power even if they can’t install panels on their own roofs, said Ziter.

The program is available to people within Green Mountain Power’s service area, which includes Addison, Bennington, Caledonia, Chittenden, Lamoille, Orange, Washington, Windham, and Windsor counties.

According to a press release, the array will serve individuals, businesses, and nonprofit groups.

The Putney Community Solar Array receives all rebates and tax incentives available to solar projects.

Green Mountain Power will credit the electricity generated by the panels directly on the owners’ electric bills for 50 years, the panels’ expected lifespan.

Ziter said the panels might remain productive for more than 50 years. He said he expects the panels will pay for themselves in 12 years.

GMP will start crediting owners’ electric bills when the array is activated in August.

The community solar project breaks down as approximately $3.25/watt. A home solar system is about $5/watt, said Ziter.

According to Ziter, when customers buy a panel, they are purchasing a transferrable asset that can be sold or bequeathed.

When owners move to another house within GMP’s service territory, their electric credits move with them.

More than half the Putney array’s panels have been purchased, he said.

Integrated Solar expects construction on the array should be complete by the end of July.

Putney-based SunFarm Community Solar and Integrated Solar in Brattleboro are partnering with Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective (CEC) to construct and maintain the solar array.

“Real change happens at the community level when you let any person vote with their dollars,” said Ziter.

Ziter started SunFarm in 2012 with a structure similar to a Community Supported Agriculture, an alternative, locally based economic model of agriculture and food distribution.

Investors would by shares in the community solar array. Each share equated to a 100-watt solar panel. The share entitles the holder to own the rights to their portion of the electric pool generated by the farm for 20 years.

Ziter said in a 2012 interview that the community-owned solar field idea sprouted from a relative in a shaded location wanting to install solar panels. Ziter 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 would receive a cut in their household electric bill proportionate to the number of shares purchased, he said.

Community solar also differs from the municipal solar projects the town of Brattleboro and the Brattleboro town school district recently approved. As tax-exempt entities, the town and school district are not eligible for the tax incentives available for renewable projects.

He said partnering with CEC allowed the Putney community solar farm to grow bigger while keeping the same goal of providing people access to community solar projects.

CEC provides the finance, expertise, permitting, and regulation savvy that Ziter said occasionally exceeded his know-how.

“It’s a lot for one person to take on,” Ziter said.

According to Ziter, CEC saw Ziter’s project and approached him about partnering with CEC.

“[The partnership] seemed like a really good fit, and it has been,” Ziter said.

According to a press release, CEC’s community solar model “leverages economies of scale, along with an optimally cited and fully maintained array for maximum power production, to deliver the lowest possible price for renewable energy.”

CEC is credited with pioneering community renewable energy, and will maintain, inspect, and repair the farm’s solar panels. Ziter said this regular professional-level TLC extends the panels’ productive lifespans compared to residential solar installations.

Ziter said CEC funnels 5 percent of the revenue each panel generates into a maintenance account ensuring that there is money for repairs.

“It’s a self-sustaining model,” he said.

Ziter said preliminary work such as environmental testing has been completed. Construction on the array begins in June.

People who bought shares in the array under SunFarm’s pre-CEC incarnation had their shares switched into the new system so they now own panels.

“It was pretty simple and seamless,” Ziter said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #205 (Wednesday, May 29, 2013).

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