Solar Project Lights Up the Farm at South Village

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Thursday May 26, 2011

Taking advantage of some sixty clear days of sunshine each year, the Farm at South Village reaps enough produce to satiate eighty localvores each week. Beginning this Wednesday, the farm will harvest all its power from that same sunshine, using a just-completed solar array set firmly in the soil of its southern exposure. Churning out a projected 150,000 kilo-watt hours a year, the panels generate enough energy for the rest of the village while the remainder—about 90%—is channeled to the city of South Burlington.

“This is the alpha project of what will hopefully be many efforts to decentralize power in Vermont,” said Dylan Raap, project manager for the farm’s solar improvements. The South Village community, sprawled over two-hundred mostly-preserved acres on East Allen Road, launched three years ago under the guidance of eco-visionary Will Raap, founder of Gardner’s Supply Company. Designed to conserve green space and utilize forward-looking building design, the community encompasses a three-acre organic vegetable farm that now includes ten rows of photovoltaic panels.

Five hundred and twenty modules fan out over the farm, facing south at a fixed thirty degrees—optimal for this area, according to Encore Redevelopment, the Burlington-based company contracted to manage the solar project. Of the array’s 147.84 kW capacity, 10% stays at the farm and in South Village.

On the farm, the panels power greenhouse ventilation, lights, heat, irrigation, and refrigeration for a future farm store. “Eventually, the goal is to create a food distribution hub, including a farm stand and on-site storage,” said Dylan Raap. Solar power will also run the village’s common amenities, such as streetlights and sewer pumps, he continued. “There aren’t enough houses built yet to utilize all the power from the array.”

That excess power flows to South Burlington via Green Mountain Power at a 25% discount off GMP’s non-green rate. Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning for the city, says that the amount purchased will equal the amount used by South Burlington’s traffic lights.

The farm, in turn, will take advantage of the state’s newly-retooled group net-metering legislation, a bill that, at presstime,  Governor Peter Shumlin was scheduled to sign into law May 25th at the South Village farm. Under it, the farm receives a 20-cent solar credit from GMP and the state for every kilo-watt hour put back into the grid—an arrangement that works, says Dylan Raap, but isn’t quite profitable.

The South Village idea and its embrace of solar technology arose when Raap—that’s Will Raap, Dylan’s father—sought a solution to merge energy production, food production, and viable communities, reasoning that a working model would inspire others around the country. And he had the means to make it happen: although Raap himself paid out major equity for the project, they secured a low interest loan from the Clean Energy Development Fund, a state-managed renewables fund created in 2006 with contributions from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. Funding also included a grant from Renewable Energy Resource Center.

According to Raap’s vision, the Farm at South Village stands as a prototype in integrated community planning, using solar as a form of power generation best suited to the site. Plans for a Vermont-based project similar to South Village—but using wind and bio-generation instead of solar—are in the fundraising stage, expected to break ground by the end of the year. And while Raap’s gaze is a global one, residents of South Burlington are poised to take part in a new model of local, green energy production each time they flip on a light switch.

SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent