University of Vermont

134 Solar Panels Installed at Spear Street Farm, Financed by Student Fund

Project an important outreach tool for Vermont agriculture

Chuck Ross (right), secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and Tom Vogelmann, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, spoke at the Ellen A. Hardacre Equine Center on the valuable resource -- on campus and off -- of the building's new solar panels.

When students left the University of Vermont campus in May, the roof of the Ellen A. Hardacre Equine Center at the university’s research farm on Spear Street, the Paul Miller Research Center, was a familiar stretch of corrugated red metal.

When they returned last weekend, 134 gleaming solar panels, positioned in orderly rows, greeted them from the sloping rooftop. The panels will produce an average of 100 kilowatt hours of electricity per day, enough to power six medium sized homes and supply 8.5 percent of the research farm’s electricity needs.

The solar panels, installed between late June and early August, are the latest contribution UVM’s Clean Energy Fund has made to the university’s campus.

Launched in 2008 after a survey found that a large majority of students supported the idea, the fund assesses UVM undergraduate and graduate students a $10 fee each semester to establish new clean energy projects on and around the UVM campus, generating about $225,000 per year. Twenty-one projects have been financed to date.

“What impresses me most about the Clean Energy Fund,” said Rebecca Pincus, a doctoral student in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and a member of the CEF selection committee, “is that a lot of small contributions from students can translate to a huge accomplishment.  This project really represents the power of what the community can accomplish by coming together.”  

The Spear Street solar panels are unique among Clean Energy Fund projects to date, said UVM’s director of sustainability, Gioia Thompson, because they link renewable energy and agriculture. "Students wanted to underscore the connection between renewable energy and agriculture,” she said, “as pressure increases to use agricultural land for energy, as well as food and fiber production, and as farmers struggle with rising energy costs."

The panels will produce the most electricity during the long days of summer, Thompson said, when electricity is at peak demand and the Northeast relies on the dirtiest forms of energy to meet its electricity needs.

Shedding light on solar’s potential

According to Chuck Ross, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, one of the project’s most important functions will be to make a medium scale agricultural solar installation a tangible presence for Vermont farmers.

“Solar has an important contribution to make to farm viability in Vermont, but compared with other renewables, it’s still in an early adopter phase here,” he said. “An important aspect of the UVM demonstration project is that farmers can visit, see how the system was installed, understand its economics and the incentives that are available, and determine if the technology is feasible at their own farms.  UVM students deserve real credit for conceiving and funding this important education and outreach tool.”

Farmers and others will also be able to view the real-time energy output of the solar array online. 

With the help of state and federal incentives, solar is catching on in other Vermont business sectors, whose lead agriculture could follow, said Andrew Perchlik, director of the Clean Energy Development Fund, housed in the Vermont Department of Public Service. Between 2002 and 2012, net metering permits for solar projects grew over 10 fold, from 12 to 315, Perchlik said.   

Ten-year payback

The total cost of the UVM project was $135,990, said Thompson, with the Clean Energy Fund supplying $80,250 of the total. An incentive grant of $55,740 from the Clean Energy Development Fund made up the difference.    

Also contributing to the project’s economics is a solar credit program from Green Mountain Power, which supplies electricity for the UVM farm. For every kilowatt hour of electricity the solar array produces, UVM gains a value of roughly 20 cents: about 14 cents for the average retail price of a kilowatt of electricity it doesn’t need to buy plus a six cent solar premium that GMP pays for every kilowatt generated.

The credit program should generate about $8,000 per year, allowing UVM to repay its initial investment in 10 years, Thompson said.  

While the university’s incentive grant was largely because of the educational role the project can play, solar technology still makes financial sense for farmers, according to Perchlik. “Under current incentive terms, farms could expect a grant of between 10 and 15 percent,” Perchlik said. “However, the price of solar is decreasing, and the statewide solar adder program now makes solar net metering a good option even apart from the incentive."

Rooftop resource

Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the solar array is just the kind of project a land grant institution like UVM should be undertaking in the 21st century and thanked students for making it possible.

“As a land grant, we need to model the most innovative ways of contributing to the viability of agriculture in our state,” he said. “We hope the solar panel project will spark discussion about costs, sustainability and clean energy, as well as demonstrate the nuts and bolts of how and where solar panels can be installed. This is a great gift students have given us and the state’s agricultural community.”

The project also makes use of a much underutilized resource on Vermont farms, said Clark Hinsdale, president of the Vermont Farm Bureau – rooftops. “Most agricultural business have a lot of roof space,” he said. “Solar is a renewable resource that doesn’t have to use land and can be a nice supplemental income source for farmers.” 

The equine center’s roof, which is typical of many roofs found on Vermont farms, required no extra reinforcement to bear the weight of the panels, said Kirk Herander, owner of Vermont Solar Engineering, which installed the solar panels and secured the incentive grant from the Clean Energy Development Fund, although the racking to which the panels attach was strengthened.  

The solar panels will begin producing electricity in early September.