Blog : Solar Arrays and the Future of the New England Farm

By Sam Lane | Jun 9, 2015 | in

By Craig Robert Brown

Just east of the New York border sits the town of Pawlet, Vermont, a community of roughly 2,000 residents. It is a town built on the backs of New England farmers, but Pawlet, like other communities in Vermont, struggles to keep its farming community vibrant today. However, Jack Bingham, of Seacoast Energy in Barrington, New Hampshire, has offered a solution to the town's disappearing farmland.

Making use of a 10 acre hay field leased to a cattle farmer, Bingham, along with a project partner in Vermont, purchased the land to build a large Photovoltaic (PV) solar system. The array will provide energy credits to offset costs at medical centers in nearby Rutland. But in a small town like Pawlet, news travels fast.

Bingham got word that there was growing dissatisfaction amongst residents based on a perception that the array displaced valuable farm land. Bingham was at first surprised by the reaction, but he did some research and discovered that Vermont residents are in a battle over farmland being sold to solar developers and utility companies.

According to a report by the Brattleboro Reformer, Vermont's House Natural Resources and Energy Committee (HNREC) is in the midst of this difficult issue as it reviews a series of bills and testimonies on locating sites in the state "where installations such as solar panels and wind turbines ought to be built, and how to balance the interests of the state, town governments, landowners and developers." In the same report, Rep. Mike Herbert, R-Vernon, also a HNREC member, said that after listening to the debate, it's clear "that people in Vermont want to have more say in the siting and developing process."


In Pawlet, the residents are speaking up, too, concerned that Bingham's array would take up available farm land, leaving local cattle and sheep farmers without proper grazing for their herds. But Bingham listened to the concerns of Pawlet's residents, reassuring them that his array would be fenced in and would not impede on the land's usage offering sheep a place to graze.

"What we're trying to do is we're trying to maintain it as an agricultural site, but at the same time make it an energy generator," said Bingham.

Bingham finished the array in December of last year just in time to receive tax credits. The credits earned will be applied to medical clinics in Rutland.

"You generate a set of credits and then you tell the utility to apply these credits to these meters," he said. "We generate the credits in Pawlet, but then they're applied to the meters [in Rutland]. And then the health clinics pay us for the kilowatt hours that we've applied to their meters."

With the argument over land usage aside, installing and generating credits in Vermont has proven easier than in Bingham's home state of New Hampshire.

This spring the New Hampshire House attempted to raid both the state's Renewable Energy Fund (REF) for solar programs and the Regional Green House Gas Initiatives (RGGI). According to a report by the New Hampshire Clean Tech Council, solar installation jobs in New Hampshire saw a growth rate of 5.4 percent from 2003 to 2010. The N.H. House's raid on the funds would stall or prevent future solar projects from starting, reducing the potential for additional, local job growth. In 2010, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Fund generated $24.3 million in revenue. For those in the energy business, the timing for these raids couldn't be worse as the price of solar panels is nearly half the cost it was in 2012.

RGGI, the program that generates the Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Fund, was voted in in 2008 as part of a ten-state initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using a cap-and-trade program.

Additionally, 10 percent of RGGI's funds aid low-income residential customers in lowering their energy use with the remaining funds distributed in competitive grants. The state receives between $15 to $18 million each year through the sale of carbon credits to energy generators, while 80 percent goes to ratepayers and the remaining amount helps pay for energy efficiency projects.

Unlike its neighbor, debates over rebates, funding and credits are non-existent in Vermont. Aside from a broad tax credit early in the development of its energy plan, the state's utility companies willingly pay a fee to have systems like the one in Pawlet installed. It's part of Vermont's plan to move toward becoming a more energy-efficient, sustainable state.

"Vermont is aggressively trying to have as much renewable energy as possible," said Bingham. "The utility doesn't fight this, it encourages it. That's why Vermont is so attractive [to solar installers]."

Helping support local businesses, especially those which have sustainability at their core, is one of the reasons Bingham is a Business Partner with the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Green Alliance, a union of sustainable businesses in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The Green Alliance encourages consumers and businesses to make a conscious decision to choose products and services that are environmentally-friendly.

But Bingham still comes up against people who believe his use of the land is detrimental to farming and raising herd animals. That's simply not the case, according to Bingham. In fact, Bingham says that by giving farm land a dual use, especially one that is environmentally and economically friendly, he is helping farmers stay in business.

"If I was a farmer, and I was looking at diminishing returns on my land, I might consider doing this myself because it's good use of the land," he said. "We haven't restricted the grazing potential of the land at all. In some ways we've made it easier."

Where Bingham has constructed his array system in Pawlet, the farmer's sheep are guaranteed a fenced-in piece of land where they can graze and be protected. In May, Bingham returned to the array and installed a solar powered water pump for the sheep to provide them with drinking water.

"You know it’s funny. I’ve been doing solar for quite a awhile now, but with solar electric you really don’t see anything. But we connected this solar powered pump, dropped it in the well, turned everything on and water came out," said Bingham. "It seems silly but that was kind of thrilling to actually see the power doing something."

For more information on Seacoast Energy, visit their Business Partner page.

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