Investing in a Community Solar Farm
by Kate Stephenson, Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee Chair
When I bought my home in Montpelier in 2007, my overall goal was to be fossil fuel free and use as much renewable energy as possible. But I knew there were going to be challenges. First, my house was built in 1876- a classic Cape, which had zero insulation in the walls and an antiquated oil furnace. Second, my house was on a steep north-facing hillside on Prospect Street and therefore receives very little direct solar gain. My first priority was weatherization- after an energy audit, we hired contractors to air seal the attic, and add insulation in the walls, basement and roof. We replaced a few leaky and rotten doors and windows, too. Then we installed a wood stove and switched over to heating the house primarily with biomass, a renewable energy source. And when the oil furnace finally died, we replaced it with a higher efficiency unit (unfortunately still on oil, since we don’t have propane) for backup. And we upgraded to a more efficient electric hot water heater and installed LED lights throughout the house. Last year we burned about 3 cords of wood and 50 gallons of heating oil, and used about 500 kWh of electricity a month for a household of 3 in 1200 square feet.
At that point, having reduced the electricity loads as much as we reasonably could, it was time to consider renewables. For years I had been paying extra on my GMP bill for “greener” electricity, but was fairly skeptical of what impact those dollars were really having to encourage the development of renewables. I knew it would not make sense to install solar on our north-facing roof or in our backyard, so when I heard about a new initiative to develop a community-owned solar farm in Waitsfield, I was intrigued. Developed by Aegis Renewables, a locally-owned renewable energy company based in Waitsfield, the Mad River Community Solar Farm (MRCSF) was created to offer a new model for community solar. Basically the 191 kW array is owned by an LLC comprised of its members, and each member purchases a share of the array based on their estimated electrical usage. We own the panels and the equipment, and have a 30-year lease on the land where the array is located (right behind the Big Picture Theater and Allen Lumber- if you’re driving down Route 100 you can see it on the hillside). Unlike many large scale solar arrays, the MRCSF LLC owns all the renewable energy credits associated with the solar production. And the whole thing is owned and managed by the members- of which there are about 30 households, mostly from the Mad River Valley, but ranging all over Vermont. Since the array is in Green Mountain Power territory, anyone with a GMP account can apply the solar electricity credits to their account due to Vermont’s net metering laws.
And it turns out, by buying the panels in bulk, and installing 191 kW all at once, the price per watt on solar is much more affordable than installing panels on my roof. I bought 16 panels which total 4.96 kW at a price of $2.87 per watt. After the federal tax credit is taken, this comes down to $2.01 per watt, or just under $10,000 for the whole system. I’ll save money on my electric bill from Day 1, as the equivalent cost per kWh is lower than GMP’s current rate, and anticipating that electricity rates are very likely to rise over the 25-year lifespan of the photovoltaic panels, it feels like a smart investment.
This morning the members of the community solar farm met to "flip the switch" and turn on the power. Unfortunately, since it snowed the night before, I don't think we're producing too much electricity today- but I'm sure the sun will come out soon!