Saturday August 24, 2013

PUTNEY - Members of Vermont's first community solar farm met at the site in Putney Friday to celebrate the opening of the solar array.

SunFarm Community Solar, the 147 kilowatt solar project which is made up of 588 panels, is online and producing electricity, project founder Nick Ziter said.

"I knew there was interest in solar. This happened very quickly but I am not surprised," Ziter said. "This is what we were hoping for. We are online and producing power." SunFarm Community Solar is located on land the company is leasing along Route 5 in Putney near Santa's Land.

Ziter says there are 43 households and businesses involved in the project, which allows investors to buy in and receive credit for the electricity that is produced.

All but 11 of the panels are called for, Ziter said, and he expects the final panels to be purchased soon.

[SLIDESHOW: Take a closer look at Friday's open house.]

There have been other large scale projects in Vermont, and other projects that had a group coming together to invest in their own panels, but SunFarm Community Solar is the first project developed by a third party that allowed customers to purchase the panels and receive the benefits of the solar energy.

"When I first did this it was almost a dream," Ziter said. "Now I go out and see the panels that are producing power and it's real. There is demand for this and people like it. I think we're going to see a lot more of these in the next few years."

Vermont was the first state to allow group net metering when it passed legislation in 2003 and today about 12 states allow groups to come together to invest in solar power and receive credits after the energy is delivered into the power grid.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-Montpelier, chairman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said even though group net metering has been allowed in the state for 10 years, enthusiasm is only just starting to build.

Every year, Klein says, lawmakers looked at the law to make it easier for the customers and power companies to support larger projects.

He says the Putney project, and other community projects that are coming online, show that there is support for community solar power.

The purpose of group net metering is to make it possible for people in apartments or in a city to take advantage of solar power," Klein said. "Every year we tried create policy and incentives that made it more accessible and now it is within reach of everyone."

Ziter first pitched his idea of starting a community solar project about a year ago and he says the response was strong.

The panels were installed this summer and he says the customers will see the benefits on their Green Mountain Power bills soon.

Most of the customers of the Putney project live around Windham County, Ziter said.

Under Ziter's model the customers purchase a single solar panel for $813.

Ziter's company handles all permitting, installation and maintenance.

The solar power produced in Putney is delivered to the GMP grid and customers receive credit for the power that is produced.

Nonprofit organizations, and even customers who rent, can take part in community solar projects.

Eventually, under the company's model, the households and businesses will own the panels in about 12 years and receive the energy for free after the equipment is paid for. The panels are expected to last 50 years.

(Far right) Nick Ziter and community members stand in front of a solar panel during the grand opening of the newly built community solar array in Putney.
(Far right) Nick Ziter and community members stand in front of a solar panel during the grand opening of the newly built community solar array in Putney. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

Ziter says plans are under way to develop another solar farm near Rutland which he says could be available in the spring.

By the time that project is online any Green Mountain Power customer, including those in Brattleboro, will be able to invest in the solar panels.

"We hit a few speed bumps on this project but we learned a lot too and it should go more smoothly next time," he says.

Former Central Vermont Public Service customers had to wait until GMP made the transition following the merger between the two companies.

"When you have so many people who want to be involved with solar power and when you have a common sense approach like this I think it makes sense that projects like this can work," Ziter said. "This has been a lot of fun. I think people are excited about this because it really works."

For more information in the community solar project go to www.vtsolargardens.com.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802254-2311, ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.