Vt. Sun reaps benefits of solar

MIDDLEBURY — You’d think that with a name like Vermont Sun Fitness Center, Steve Hare’s business would have gone solar sooner.
The notion of installing solar power panels at the gym off Exchange Street in Middlebury did occur to Hare about a decade ago. But back then, the businessman says, solar arrays were expensive and took a longer period to pay off installation costs than they do now.
Now, he says, thanks to changes in technology and production techniques, that’s changed.
“Ten years ago it didn’t make much sense,” he said. “It was costly, it was hard to see the payback and the incentives weren’t as good. Now it makes sense not only from the perspective that it’s good for the planet, it makes economic sense.”
With the help of a loan from the National Bank of Middlebury, Hare over the past few months installed arrays on the roof and in the field adjacent to the gym. Construction began this past July and the array was fully operational in September.
The stationary solar panels on the roof produce 60 kilowatts of power while 21 photovoltaic trackers on the lawn, which move with the sun, produce 84 kilowatts. So the entire array is rated for 144 kilowatts, but on a sunny day it actually produces much more. That’s because the trackers follow the sun throughout the day and therefore out produce their rated capacity. The stationary panels on the roof generate the most electricity only while the sun is directly overhead.
The energy produced by the array goes into the energy grid managed by Green Mountain Power. When the gym receives an electric bill, the electrical utility credits Vermont Sun for the energy contributed to the grid not used by the 30,000-square-foot building.
The entire array generates enough for 40 homes, Hare says; much more electricity than the gym requires.
“Here’s the easiest way to look at it,” he explained. “We’re producing more power than we’re spending. From the electricity alone, we’re producing enough electricity to completely get rid of our electric bill.”
In addition to lower electric bills, Hare says he and his wife and co-owner, Shelly, receive benefits from federal and state tax credits — 30 percent at the federal level and 7.25 percent from the state. As a commercial operation, the business can depreciate the cost of the panels, saving them even more.           
While the data from the arrays are still coming in, Hare says the savings in his electric bill are clear enough, averaging $4,000 per month. The savings may be higher in the summer and lower in the winter.
Hare said he anticipated the array would pay back the $500,000 price tag in 10 years.
“There will come a point in 10 years where we’ll have that loan paid off and then we’ll be earning money,” he said.
The man behind the sun-tracking solar array is Bill Bender, the president of Solaflect, a solar panel company that he has been growing since 2007 in Norwich. In 2011 and 2013 the company received $2 million in grants through the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Sunshot” program, which looks to reduce the cost of solar technology to compete with fossil fuels or other energy sources. The grants were used to test and develop a new “suspension” design for lighter-weight trackers and to develop production methods to manufacture Solaflect’s models on a larger scale.
While Bender’s Suspension PV Tracker is no more efficient than solar trackers produced by other companies, he says the ability to track the sun makes them 40 percent more efficient than other fixed arrays on roofs or in fields.
“The great advantage is you get energy at a pretty constant rate all day long,” he said. “On a sunny day, probably within an hour of sunrise, you’re working at full power. That’s very advantageous in the summer, when we’re hitting peaks in the grid usually in the late afternoon or early evening. If you look at a fixed PV (photovoltaic) that faces south, the sun sets on them at around four or five in the afternoon (and after that only shines) on the back of them. You get zero power then, but that’s when you’re hitting the peak in the grid.”
The advantage Bender’s design has over other solar trackers is that it is much lighter. The panels from Solaflect reduce 1,000 pounds of steel to seven pounds of steel cable in a design that supports the array like a suspension bridge. The reduced material allows the panels to move faster to their resting position in the event of a wind or snowstorm. The panels can also incline to allow snow to slide off in the winter.
Other companies have also used Bender’s design. Norwich Technologies, another solar company in Norwich, used Solaflect’s suspension technology in a parabolic trough, which concentrates the sun’s energy with curved mirrors to heat a tube of fluid that can be used for purposes including heat or electricity generation. The company won a $677,504 Department of Energy grant last month.
Popular solar, unpopular site 
According to the technology resource group Tech Republic, 2013 saw more solar arrays installed in the United States than in the past 25 years. In Vermont, the popularity of solar arrays and the increase in their production has sparked discussion around how and where solar arrays should be sited.
Bill Bender said the discussion about how and where to place solar arrays is only going to gain prevalence as solar becomes more popular.
“It’s a big challenge and it’s going to be a bigger challenge because we need a lot of solar in Vermont and everywhere else,” he said. “We’ll need thousands of acres in order to meet our renewable goals.”
“It’s real and it’s under our noses,” he added. “And it’s going to take a change in our landscape in order to address it.”
Bender said he’d like to avoid having his arrays obstructing views or using up agricultural land, but said that oftentimes, regulations on where solar arrays can be placed leave people with little choice.
“I think we have issues from a regulatory perspective and I think the state has to address that,” he said. “Some of it is changing the aesthetics and what people expect. Ultimately, people will get more used to it as they see more of it, but, short term, that is a challenge.”
But with little risk and a big payback, Steve Hare said the decision to install the array at Vermont Sun was simple.
“It’s not a risk like putting a business together or taking a risk that might succeed or might not,” he said. “It’s the sun’s guarantee. It shines, you make electricity and you don’t pay your electric bill.” 

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