Route 7 farm to combine sheep and solar arrays

NEW HAVEN — Commuters on Route 7 through New Haven are starting to notice rows of solar arrays going up on the west side of the highway, north of the Lime Kiln Road intersection
Soon, those who take a second look will also notice something unusual on the solar farm: a herd of sheep.
The solar array, which has been four years in the making, ultimately will host 178 solar panels on a 40-acre portion of a 180-acre property formerly owned by the Freyer family. Engineers at Cross Pollination, the Williston-based renewable energy company installing the new technology, envisioned a solar farm with dual uses: generating renewable electricity, while continuing to use the land for agriculture.
The Freyer property, which had been purchased by the family in 1968 and run as a dairy farm until the mid-1980s, was identified for its proximity to a central power line, its viability for an agricultural operation, and exposure to the sun. Because the electricity was going to go into the state power grid, the project was under the jurisdiction of the Vermont Public Service Board and not subject to local licensing review.
The project encountered one substantial roadblock when New Haven resident John Madden appealed the project’s Certificate of Public Good to the PSB. Though the appeal was ultimately thrown out by the board, it did delay the project for a year.
“It has been a journey,” said Paul Lekstutis, a principal of Cross Pollination.
The company had won a spot with the state’s “Standard Offer” program in 2009, which selected renewable energy projects to be eligible for state subsidies via a state lottery. The 2009 legislation creating this program had put a subsidy for producing 12.5 megawatts of solar electricity generation up for grabs. It required a utility — in this case, Green Mountain Power — to pay a premium for renewable energy generated by new solar farms, thereby helping its developers pay for the projects.
Once it its fully operational by mid-September, the New Haven solar farm will put enough electricity into the state power grid to power 400 homes each year.
Cross Pollination’s founding vision of having renewable energy and sustainable agriculture go hand-in-hand is also becoming a reality. They have granted agricultural use of the land to Open View Farms, run by Vermont natives Anna Hulbert and Ben Freund, both 27. Open View is a diversified organic farm that raises lamb and meat birds along with certified organic vegetables. It also has a sugarhouse.
“Their vision was to give a group access to a piece of land to farm,” said Hulbert, who was raised in Bristol and Middlebury and attended Mount Abraham Union High School, the Gailer School and the University of Vermont. She heads up the farm’s animal operation, while Freund, a native of Middlesex, is in charge of the vegetables and the maple syrup production.
The duo met in high school on the Vermont Youth Conservation crew.
Hulbert said the solar project had enabled them to have access to farming land — a challenge in Addison County for those who don’t have access to family land.
“A lot of people complain about the panels and say, ‘Oh it doesn’t look good,’ and farmers sometimes complain that it’s a waste of good agricultural land,” Hulbert said. “My point of view is that we have to do something about energy … (The solar panels) are providing a good service, and the sheep graze around them so the land is still being used for agriculture.”
Hulbert, who learned about sheep production while studying abroad in New Zealand, is optimistic that the sheep and the solar panels will coexist nicely.
She added that the contract for the solar panel was 25 years, at which point they could hypothetically be changed or removed. But she didn’t think that would be in the public’s best interest.
“I think this is a good development use,” she said. “Without the solar project, the use of this land for farming would be unlikely, anyway.”

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