SunCommon floats plan for community solar

WALTHAM — Weather-wise, this past Thursday wasn’t the best day to announce a major solar project. It was, in fact, nearly the worst — 40 degrees, gusting winds, overcast skies and a downpour that showed no signs of relenting.
But SunCommon co-founder Duane Peterson was determined to prevent Mother Nature from ruining his big day — when his company would announce a new wave of solar arrays priced to encourage wider adoption of solar power and sited in smaller footprints that may garner more community support.
Standing in front of a one-acre solar array in a muddy field off Route 7 in Waltham, he was even upbeat as he announced the Waterbury firm’s launch of the Vermont’s largest community solar program, which he called a CSA, or community supported array.
“The system behind us is SunCommon’s first community solar array, the birth of an innovative new program in the effort to build an independent energy future for Vermont,” he said, standing in front of the 666-panel solar array.
What exactly is a community solar array, or CSA? Like any other array it’s a field full of solar panels connected to the power grid. What’s different is that residents can purchase a percentage of the array to offset or eliminate their monthly electric bill.
Each of SunCommon’s arrays will occupy about one acre and have the capacity to generate 150 kilowatts, enough energy to power 30 homes annually. The company plans to build enough arrays around the state over the next two years to provide electricity for 2,000 Vermonters.
Peterson explained that he and James Moore founded SunCommon in 2012 to solve a problem plaguing many Vermonters: They wanted to go solar, but it was too expensive. Even if people had the cash, often their roofs were not big enough, or faced the wrong direction, to host a financially viable solar array.
Landowners that host CSAs pay no upfront costs to construct the array. They also receive a monthly stipend from SunCommon. Residents who join a CSA pay a monthly fee. Peterson said SunCommon offers CSA memberships to residents near the arrays first, so they can benefit from a utility project in their town.
Peterson said that SunCommon is also committed to maintaining good relations with neighbors and towns. He unveiled what he called a “good neighbor agreement” that outlines the company’s goals to that end.
“This agreement follows our core principles and makes clear our commitments to the communities we seek to serve,” Peterson said. “We take into consideration public benefit, and aim to engage with communities early in the process.”
This summer, a SunCommon CSA approved by the Public Service Board to be sited in a residential area in New Haven caused a stir among neighbors. Peterson said the company erred by not presenting the project to the town, and promised to do so in the future.
Peterson acknowledged that while he doesn’t find solar arrays to be unappealing, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. He said SunCommon will mitigate any potential eyesores.
“We get that the 10-foot-tall community solar arrays are not to everyone’s liking,” Peterson said. “We seek to plant CSAs with care for the view they’re becoming part of. We landscape them with attractive shrubbery when needed. We surround them with goats or sheep.”
SUNCOMMON CO-FOUNDER DUANE Peterson smashes a bottle of beer against the new solar array on Route in Waltham last Thursday and christens the one-acre array that is the first of many being built as part of a Community Solar Array program. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The Addison County Regional Planning Commission will host a workshop on solar array siting this Thursday evening (see related story).
Darren Springer, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, attended the press event on behalf of Gov. Peter Shumlin. He said the administration is excited to see a Vermont company leading the state forward in solar energy production.
“We’ve had an explosion of solar in the state just in the last few years,” Springer said. “We’ve more than quadrupled the amount of solar that connected to the grid in Vermont.”
Springer attributed much of that growth to changes the Legislature made this past spring to the way solar projects are taxed and by increasing the amount of net-metering projects that could connect to the electrical grid.
“Five or six years ago, if you wanted to do solar, you had to have the roof and you had to have access to $30,000 or more,” Springer said. “Now with incentives, net metering and creativity of companies like SunCommon, you have a system for someone who doesn’t need the roof space or up-front money.”
Springer said that while the Public Service Board, rather than municipal entities, has jurisdiction over utility projects, the Department of Public Service urges solar firms to reach out to towns and residents.
“We absolutely encourage companies to do that,” Springer said. “It’s really incumbent upon them to do it, because if they don’t, that’s when you’ll hear concerns raised in the board process. So if concerns can be worked out ahead of time, it’s to everyone’s benefit.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, purchased 2 percent of the array with her husband. She praised SunCommon for enabling middle-income Vermonters to go solar.
“SunCommon has been true to its mission because it has removed the barriers for going solar, particularly for citizens and homeowners who have never participated in any type of renewable energy efforts before,” she said. “All we had to do was say ‘yes.’”
Wendy McCardle of Bristol, who purchased 3 percent of the array, said she was glad to finally have the opportunity get some of her energy from solar sources.
“I’ve been wanting to go solar for a lot of years now, and SunCommon made it a reality,” she said.

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