Photo by Sally Brophy
In February 2011, Eric Shenholm approached a solar installer to discuss installation of a multiple-family solar project in his field. He had a perfect site: an east-west oriented field with no obstructions to the south and close proximity to a power line. What he didn’t have were the funds to install a large system on his own.
Shenholm started researching community solar projects in Vermont to see how others approached this idea, but found only two systems, neither of which had a structure he could emulate. Both were fully capitalized and installed by one individual who then “sold” power to a number of interested neighbors. Unable to follow that route, Shenholm realized if he had several people willing to join in advance, it would bring the price down for everyone.
He started asking in his community and found three interested neighbors right away. Adding his own house and his in-laws’ house, he had five households. The group held initial planning meetings and two solar companies were brought in for estimates. Both estimates seemed high to Shenholm, who had been in the solar business in the 70’s and early 80’s, and in the construction business since then.
For planning purposes, the system under consideration was 30 kW and would generate electricity for six households, each receiving 5kW, based on the national average needed per household. The reality was that each household needed something other than 5kW, and the projected needs for five households added up to roughly 30kW. This system went on line in October 2013. In October 2014 the array was expanded by 12kW for two more households. In 2015 another 15kW was added for two more households. Another expansion is currently in the planning phase and inquiries are welcomed.
How It Works:
The people who are members of the original 27.54kW system are all Shenholm’s neighbors, but because of Vermont’s group net metering laws, anyone within one utility territory – in this case Green Mountain Power’s service area – can take part in a group net-metered system. The common denominator of interested parties is simply that they want to “go solar” but don’t have an adequate site on their own property.
“For years I wanted to install solar PV panels at my home, but a beautiful oak tree made it impossible. Eric’s solar project allowed a long-time dream to come true, first by heating my home with a groundwater geothermal system (and removing the furnace and fuel tank!) and now by my driving a fully electric car. Finally my daily life is off fossil fuels!” — A member/solar off-taker in the project
Since estimates from the two solar companies seemed high, Shenholm decided to see what would be required by the State of Vermont for him to install the system himself. For the members of the group to receive the state incentive for installing renewable energy, the installer must be what is called a “Provisional Solar Partner.” To qualify, Shenholm took several intensive courses in PV installation accredited by the State of Vermont. He was then able to be the installer and receive the Vermont incentive, which was divided among the group members. (This project was also the first job for Shenholm’s new solar company: Saxtons River Solar Electric, LLC.)
In meetings held over the course of two years, a collective structure emerged that everyone was happy with. Each member leases the plot of land that their system is sited on, and owns their solar equipment, which entitles them to state and federal tax breaks and incentives. A long-term lease was negotiated with the help of a lawyer along with a Guiding Member Operating Agreement to set the terms of the project, including upkeep and maintenance concerns. Power generated would be attributed to each member’s meter based on their ownership percentage of the total system.
Shenholm, the system administrator, gave the individual meter numbers and their allocation percentage to Green Mountain Power, who divides the production up and credits the appropriate accounts.
The original estimates for the proposed project were $200,000 and $227,000. (These numbers were in 2011, and reflected what was then the current “average price” of a solar PV system installed in Vermont.) The final cost of the system Shenholm installed was $94,000. (Instead of $6/watt or $7/watt, collective members paid $3.42/watt.) No corners were cut in the equipment or installation. The panels and inverters are all top shelf components from established suppliers.
By joining together to install one larger system instead of 5 or 7 smaller systems, member/owners experienced significant savings and a shorter payback on their investment. We have now logged three and a half years of operation, and all members are getting 90 to 100+% of their electricity needs met by solar energy.
Keys to Success:
- A commitment to renewable energy by the group members.
- A willingness to make decisions by consensus, keeping “community” values in mind.
- One person serving as coordinator/administrator to manage the process and project.
- A Member Operating Agreement.
- Vermont’s state incentive program.
- The 30 percent residential federal tax credit going to each member and significantly driving down the cost of the project.
- Green Mountain Power’s commitment to renewables and net-metering.