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Middlebury College to install solar farm

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Posted on January 16, 2012 |
By Andrew Stein



solarstudents7961.jpg
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SOPHOMORES Camille Seyler, left, Ali Rotatori, Olivia French and Spencer Petterson researched solar technology and have convinced college officials to erect a two-acre solar array in the Route 125 field seen in the background. The electricity generated by the solar panels will feed back into the grid and provide the college with credits toward its electricity use. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College will soon expand its renewable energy portfolio. Next month it will install 34 photovoltaic solar power collectors on the open swathe of 1.5-acre college land off Route 125, between McCardell Bicentennial Hall and the college organic garden.

The 143-kilowatt (kW) project, slated to go up in February, is expected to generate 200,000 kW-hours (kWh) of electricity per year, and will be metered against Battell Hall to offset the annual power consumption of the year-round dormitory, which annually uses about 190,000 kWh.

To make this all happen, the college signed what’s known as a Power Purchase Agreement with AllEarth Renewables, the solar collectors’ manufacturer. The agreement means the college is essentially leasing the solar panels, which will sit on trackers and follow the sun, from the Williston-based company for five years.

The college has long been considering a solar farm to help meet the school’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2016, according to Jack Byrne, director of sustainability integration at Middlebury. But it wasn’t until four students in Professor John Isham’s environmental economics class — Spencer Petterson, Camille Seylor, Olivia French and Alexandra Rotatori — conducted a cost-benefit analysis that college administrators were fully convinced to go ahead with the project.

“We were inclined in this direction, but the work they did made it much easier to (go ahead with the solar farm) because they answered a lot of important questions that needed to be addressed,” said Byrne. “So they paved the way for the decision to be made, in that sense.”

The study’s conclusion found “little risk in this investment,” and the authors “believe the project will benefit Middlebury, (AllEarth) and the surrounding community.” The school plans to save money on the investment, AllEarth will generate income, and local solar dealer and installer Backspin Renewables will install the solar farm.

AllEarth’s agreement with Middlebury College is stereotypical of contracts the company has previously forged with nonprofit institutions, which can’t claim many tax incentives for alternative energy installations. Without tax incentives, solar projects in Vermont are usually less attractive, which is why AllEarth created a leasing structure that gives lessees an opportunity to buy the trackers at a discounted price or lease them again when the current contract expires.

The college paid an initial deposit of $1,000 to lease the trackers for five years and will pay installments of 20-cents a kilowatt-hour to AllEarth for every kWh the solar collectors produce. Meanwhile, the college will generate about a 2-cent power credit for every kWh it produces because of a utility subsidy for solar projects, which is mandated by the Vermont Energy Act of 2011. Middlebury Vice President of Finance and Treasurer Patrick Norton expects this project to save the school $5,000-10,000 a year.

“From a financial standpoint this is a low-risk project with a positive impact,” said Norton in a release. “At current rates, we will earn money for every kWh produced and we will retain rights to the clean energy credits.”

Fortunately for Middlebury, the school signed the deal on Dec. 30, two days before a federal subsidy expired.

“The expiration of the program will mean that fewer community-scale projects, particularly for nonprofit entities like Middlebury, will be possible in 2012,” said AllEarth spokesman Andrew Savage.

The solar farm will join a growing renewable energy portfolio at Middlebury College. According to Byrne, Middlebury’s thermal biomass plant — used for heating, cooling and electricity — generates half of the schools thermal energy. Its 10-kW wind turbine powers 15 percent of the recycling center’s electricity needs. The 8kW solar unit on Franklin Environmental Center powers one quarter of the building and the rest comes from utility Central Vermont Public Service’s Cow Power program, which subsidizes methane-produced electricity on farms that pump into the grid.

Aside from the economic and environmental benefits of the project, it’ll also present students with new opportunities to learn about solar power, college officials said. Byrne imagines a wide range of student research projects to explore the efficacy and viability of this new solar power, and he’s already making plans.

“A research project could be done to look at their actual performance and efficiency,” he said. “You could use a pyranometer, which is a device that measures the actual sun energy falling on a surface, essentially looking at how much solar energy falls on the panel and how much electricity does the panel make with the energy.”

He’s currently unsure how students and faculty will be able to regularly monitor the system’s productivity through the school, but a daily energy production report will be available on AllEarth’s website (www.allearthrenewables.com). For now, Byrne’s simply looking forward to the school’s new venture into solar.

“We’re really excited to be able to do this, and we’re looking forward to all of the renewable electricity it’s going to provide us and all of the educational opportunities it’s going to create.”

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com.

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