UVM installs 134 solar panels at Spear Street farm

Chuck Ross, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Photo by Sally McCay, UVM Photo

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

When they returned, 134 gleaming solar panels greeted them from the sloping rooftop. The panels will produce an average of 100 kilowatt hours of electricity per day, which is 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.

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.”

10-year payback

The total cost of the UVM project was $135,990, said UVM’s director of sustainability, Gioia 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 kWh of electricity it doesn’t need to buy plus a six cent solar premium that GMP pays for every kWh generated.

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

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 businesses 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 solar panels will begin producing electricity in early September.

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