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Shoreham orchard owners believe time is ripe to go solar

SHOREHAM — Champlain Orchards depends on the sun to naturally ripen the more than 3 million pounds of fruit, primarily apples, that it produces each year.
Now orchard owners Bill Suhr and Andrea Scott are harnessing the sun to lower the energy costs of harvesting and processing the fruit.
They are accomplishing this through two on-site orchards of solar trackers that will produce a combined total of around 165,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year — enough to supply the energy for the orchard’s main campus, refrigeration, offices, processing equipment and seasonal housing.
The two 60kW solar trackers, made by Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, are each sited on an acre at the expansive orchard and will make the operation 100-percent renewable in its electricity use.
“It feels right knowing where our power is coming from,” Suhr said on Monday.
Each of the solar devices consists of 14 pole-mounted dual-axis AllSun solar trackers, which use GPS and wireless technology to follow the sun throughout the day, maximizing their energy production. 
AllEarth is bearing the up-front costs of installing and maintaining the equipment, which Champlain Orchards will have the option of purchasing within five, 10 or 15 years, noted Suhr.
The orchard will lease the equipment through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) and pay through that lease for the approximate value of the electricity generated, according to AllEarth spokesman Andrew Savage. Thus, the orchard has no upfront costs and will likely see a net savings through the PPA, according to Savage.
Green Mountain Power will keep track of the electricity generated by the solar trackers, as well as the power consumed at the farm, which includes 150 acres of orchards.
“By the end of the year, we will most likely be at net-zero,” Suhr said.
Suhr and Scott bought the Route 74 orchard in 1998 and have since turned it into one of the most successful fruit-growing businesses in the state. Among its customers are Vermont Hard Cider Company, Hannaford supermarkets, and many local co-ops and colleges, including the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s and Middlebury College.
It was after looking into a possible wind project (and finding the orchard isn’t ideally suited for a turbine) that Suhr looked into a solar option. He learned that two trackers would work better for the orchard’s purposes than solar panels affixed to one of the buildings on the property.
Along with providing an important source of renewable energy, Suhr believes the solar trackers will help educate the public, who are of course welcome at the orchard.
“We always want our customers to know how their food is being grown,” Suhr said, also adding, “I am glad that our neighborhood gets to see what it takes to self-power.” 
AllEarth officials were pleased with the orchard owners’ decision.
“Bill and Andrea at Champlain Orchards know intimately the power of the sun in making their business successful,” said David Blittersdorf, CEO of AllEarth Renewables. “More and more, people are understanding they can make both a financially sound decision and a sustainable decision.”
Though the arrays have been up for only a few months, they are measuring up to expectations, according to Suhr. He said he hopes other businesses and individuals are able to make a similar transition to renewable energy.
“It’s astonishing how dependent we are on outside systems of energy,” Suhr said. “As farmers and business-owners who value independence, we wanted to do something that better utilized our own local resources more fully. And this solar allows us to do just that.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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