Peacham, Vermont, population 731, is holding a Solarbration on September 24, 2023 to officially welcome the Peacham Community Solar installation to the neighborhood. At just 150 kW, it may be small compared to other community solar projects, but it will have a big impact on the people and business who make their homes in the area.
Peacham is part of what Vermonters call the Northeast Kingdom — the area of the state that extends northward to the Canadian border. It is a place where local families have worked the land for generations.
The people who live in the Northeast Kingdom are keenly aware of how the environment is changing and how those changes will affect their lives and the lives of those who follow in their footsteps. That led a group of local residents, including the Peacham Energy Committee, to begin talking about building a community solar facility in the town.
A Neighbor Steps Forward
But where to put it? Farming communities in America are reluctant to see their land covered with solar panels. Then Frank Miller, whose family has owned a 5 ½ acre farm in Peacham for generations, stepped forward and offered to put it on a half acre strip of land on one side of his farm.
“I worked in the oil and gas industry for about 40 years. I thought the work was valuable and I enjoyed it. Time has gone forward and I think everybody is aware of the changes in the climate and I’m convinced that we as a nation, as a world, have to do something about that,” he says.
That was the start the group needed. Next came the hard work of getting the town, local utility, and State approval agencies on board. Northeast Vermont Development Agency (NVDA) was consulted to ensure the array was located on a “preferred site” — a place that would not disrupt prime agricultural lands or deer wintering habitat, and would have a minimal visual impact on the community. The project also had to align with existing regional and local energy plans.
Fortunately, there was transmission capacity on the existing electrical supply line for Green Mountain Power close to Frank Miller’s farm, which simplified the process of connecting the solar array to the local grid.
The impact on farming will be minimal. About 90% of the field where the array is located will continue to be used by local hay farmers. Pollinator plants and bee/butterfly friendly habitat will be planted alongside the solar array by the nonprofit group Bee the Change. The organization says it now has fields in 45 towns. Combined, those fields are equivalent to every Vermont household having a 100-square-foot pollinator garden.
Miller’s property lends itself well to hosting a solar array. It faces the right direction and has the right pitch to receive the maximum amount of sunlight available in the area. There are two rows of solar panels set far enough apart so the front row does not shade the row behind. The land in between is where the pollinator species will be planted. Gaps between the panels give water from melting snow a place to go.
Peacham Community Solar went live this summer and is now making renewable energy benefits available to several local households, farms, and businesses. The town of Peacham is also benefiting. As a long-term participant via a power purchase agreement, it is receiving discounted electricity for its public facilities.
Jock Gill, one of the members for the Peacham Energy Committee, says he likes to think of the solar array not as diminishing the amount of farmland in the town but rather as a transition to a different kind of farming — harvesting energy from the sun.
“Let’s call it a sun farming,” he says. “Hay is just stored solar energy. The hay from Frank Miller’s farm will be converted to milk and sent to a creamery. Our solar panels also collect solar energy and send the electricity out. Milk is value added to the solar energy in hay. Electricity is value added to simple sunlight. So our Peacham Community Solar project is a continuation of a very important Vermont way of life!”
Community Solar Eliminates Hassles
Homeowners can add a rooftop solar system to their home if it makes sense economically, but not every roof is suitable for solar. Some are shaded or face the wrong direction. Others are too flat or too steep. Those who rent their homes are unable to benefit from rooftop solar as well.
Frank Miller points out that there’s more to a solar system than just racking and panels. There are inverters needed to convert the electricity to alternating current. Maintenance and repairs need to be considered. There are also details like insurance, taxes, and warranties to consider.
A community solar installation avoids all those negative considerations. Subscribers get to enjoy all the benefits of solar power while someone else takes care of designing the system, finding a contractor to construct it, obtaining permits, arranging for a connection to the utility grid, and so forth.
Subscribers to Peacham Community Solar pay a $100 reservation fee that covers the cost of maintenance, repairs, and insurance. Once the system is operational, they get a rate for electricity that is guaranteed for decades, insulating them from increases in the rates charged by utility companies, which can average between 2 and 4 percent a year.
Shares in Peacham Community Solar come in 1 kW units, with each unit priced at $2850. A typical residential rooftop solar system is around 5 kW — equivalent to $14,250 at PCS prices. Subscribers are eligible for the federal 30% tax credit, bringing their net cost for 5 kW of clean energy to about $9,975. People may sign up for as many shares as they wish until all 150 shares are spoken for.
Allison Webster, chair of the Peacham Energy Committee, points out that tax credits only offset an actual tax liability. Some subscribers on a fixed income may not be able to take full advantage of the federal tax credit. “This is one of the equity issues of solar tax credits,” she says.
How much electricity will each 1 kW share of solar generation save? That depends on how those rate increases play out over time and on possible changes to state-regulated “net metering” policies. So far, net metering rates for a given solar project are locked in at the time the solar interconnection agreement is signed.
A subscription is basically a hedge against inflation. With everything from gasoline and housing to the price of food going up, utility rates are expected to rise as well. Before the pandemic, Green Mountain Power forecast near-term increases in its rates of 2.72% annually. It warns that other increases are coming to help modernize the grid and to harden it against extreme weather events.
An additional benefit PCS subscribers get is they can transfer their membership to any place in Vermont served by Green Mountain Power. Rooftop solar systems, by definition, are not transportable.
Community Solar For All
Peacham Community Solar was developed by Wolfe Energy, owned by Dori Wolfe, a Vermont solar veteran. Her company is also the developer of a much larger 7 MW project with industry partners and a rooftop solar array installed recently on the Peacham elementary school. The developer gets paid a fee for each kW generated once a project is completed and accepted. As the result of a competitive bidding process, iSun Solar was selected to construct the array.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” What is happening in Peacham is the proof of her words. It is the result of years of effort by a number of local residents who saw the benefits of community solar and wanted to make them available to their community.
Peacham Community Solar is about more than providing clean energy to a small town in northern Vermont. It is about the democratization of electricity — local control over locally generated energy that benefits local residents and businesses. That turns the traditional way electricity is generated and distributed on its head.
For more about Peacham Community Solar, be sure to check out this video to learn why Frank Miller, whose family has been farming in the Northeast Kingdom for generations, is enthusiastic about becoming a sun farmer because of the benefits it brings to him, his family, and his community.
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