Gone Solar

Business owners hitch their fortunes to a star

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

national-life-encore0817National Life solar array
Courtesy of Encore Renewable Energy

The power companies supposedly like solar power because it’s working the best right now on a day like today — in summer, when the demand is high, and people are using air conditioners.”

waterbury-encore0817Waterbury State Office Complex shot: Encore Renewable Energy worked with the Vermont Department of Buildings and Services to deliver a third-party-owned solar project at the new Waterbury State Office Complex. It includes 110kWp (kilowatt peak) of roof-mounted panels and a single ground-mounted dual-axis tracker at the facility entrance, to symbolize the state’s commitment to the clean energy economy.
Courtesy of Encore Renewable Energy

That’s Robert Fuller, speaking on a hot July day. He’s the former owner of Leunig’s Bistro and still owns the Burlington building that houses it. By “working the best,” Fuller is referring to the power that’s being fed into the grid from solar installations, which reduces the amount electric companies have to buy from outside providers.

It’s hard to nail down how many Vermont companies have opted to go solar, but the number is large, and growing, as is the number of businesses that do the work. We connected with three of them that offer commercial-scale projects: SunCommon in Waterbury, Encore Renewable Energy in Burlington, and Building Energy, with offices in Williston, White River Junction, Middlebury, and Stowe.

“The main thing that the larger commercial and utility-size systems are up against this year is that we’ve got some much more cumbersome permitting restrictions about where these systems can be sited,” says Nick Ponzio, co-founder and vice president of solar operations of Building Energy.

That’s because the state wants to discourage development of solar arrays in arable farm fields in favor of rooftops, landfills, brownfields, “on undervalued and other undevelopable land,” according to Chad Farrell, the founder and CEO of Encore.

The most important consideration for a company looking to invest in a solar project is taking the time to understand the financials up front, says Farrell. There are tax advantages affiliated with them that are important to understand so they can be realized.

For roof projects, making sure the roof has enough structural capacity to support the panels and the racking is critical — performing the due diligence to understand all aspects of the investment, risk factors, and potential constraints, he adds.

We connected with four companies that have installed solar in the last few years to ask why they decided on solar, a bit about their projects, and how they’re working.

Leunig’s Bistro, Burlington; Building Energy, 2010

Robert Fuller can speak to the roof issue.

His building was erected in 1830 to accommodate a snow load of 30 pounds per square foot. “The much more current loading was 60 pounds per square foot,” he says.

“We had to basically double up all the joists in the roof and put in a whole bunch of steel rafters and lots of other steel reinforcement. I never regret spending money on that kind of maintenance,” he continues. “That added almost $100,000 to the cost of the project, but the 120 panels up there were something like $170,000. The whole system generates about $8,000 a year that’s fed back into the line and credited to our bill.”

Fuller availed himself of both state and federal tax incentives, and was one of only 12 that year chosen by lottery to take part in the state’s SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development) Standard Offer Program, designed to encourage the development of resources by making long-term contracts at fixed prices available to qualified renewable energy facilities.

btv-encore0817Burlington Electric Department worked with Encore Renewable Energy to create this 578kWp (kilowatt peak) project on the rooftop of the Burlington International Airport. It was commissioned in January 2015.
Courtesy of Encore Renewable Energy

“So for 25 years,” he says, “the power I produce at Leunig’s, I get, I think, 30 cents a kilowatt-hour, which is over double what I usually pay, from Burlington Electric.”

Rock Art Brewery, Morrisville; SunCommon, 2017

Rock Art has the distinction of being Vermont’s first 100 percent solar-powered brewery with its 200-panel rooftop solar array. Owners Matt Nadeau and his wife, Renée, had always wanted to go to solar for the brewery.

“We are very environmentally conscious at home — all the recycling efforts we can: lights, heat loss, composting. That’s what I grew up with. When I was out sliding and my boots got wet, my grandmother would have bags she’d saved to put over them so I wouldn’t bring in the snow. My grandfather had a small hydro project he used to put DC power into a camp in the woods so we had lights, a DC motor refrigerator, even a light in the outhouse.”

The business is in great shape, says Nadeau, and he had been hosting some of SunCommon’s parties, so it seemed a natural move. “Even on those cloudy, rainy days we’ve been having, we’re still generating enough power so we’re not pulling from the grid. And with three-phase industrial power with 200-amp service, we’re running our forklifts on solar power now. We got some 13-horsepower motors for cooling on solar power. It’s neat because energy comes to the earth every day — some days better than others.”

National Life Insurance Co., Montpelier; Encore Renewable Energy, 2014

“We have a campus of about 200 to 250 acres, so there’s plenty of room to do something like this,” says Ross Snead, National Life’s director of corporate communications and community relations. “We already had power from a 70-kilowatt installation that had gone on the roof in 2008. And at the southern end of our property is the 500-kilowatt array that went online at the end of 2014. So that’s about 2,100 panels.”

leunigs-building-energy0817Leunig’s Bistro
Courtesy of Building Energy

National Life has 500,000 square feet of office space in its location, and between its own operation and the space leased to the state, about 2,000 people work there. The project has already paid for itself in terms of the savings, Snead says. The company is now able to produce, between these two solar arrays, about 15 percent of its own power. “Our annual electrical use is 10,000 megawatts; the two projects combined produce 1,500 megawatts.”

The company is part of a “critical peak program,” which Green Mountain Power conducts with large electric users. “They will turn to companies like ourselves to go off the grid when it’s needed,” says Snead, speaking of high-demand days. “I had a conversation yesterday with NECN because we are part of that program. We also have two huge diesel engines here, emergency generators, and we fired them up yesterday afternoon and went off the grid.”

“As Montpelier’s largest employer,” he says, “we support the city’s goal to become a net zero city, I believe, by 2030, and this is one of the ways we helped move closer to that.”

pump-pantry0817Pump & Pantry
Courtesy of SunCommon

Pump & Pantry, Williamstown; SunCommon

Sam Adams is the owner of Pump & Pantry, a 10,000-square-foot grocery and convenience store that sells groceries, fresh meat, produce, gasoline, beer, and wine.

“I wanted to do something sort of progressive environmentally as well as having it be a good investment,” says Adams, who considered various proposals until settling on SunCommon.

rock-art0817Rock Art Brewery
Courtesy of SunCommon

“This made the most financial sense, a combination of pricing from SunCommon and net metering from Green Mountain Power. We were able to take advantage of both federal and state tax credits.”

The store’s 200 panels cover pretty much the entire south side of the building’s roof, he says, and things are going well. “It’s better on sunny days, and this has not been a good spring and early summer for sun, but it’s certainly producing electricity, and is certainly in line with their projections on what it would produce.”

One thing he appreciated, he says, is that his was a total turnkey project. Installation took about three weeks. “They handled applying to Green Mountain Power, the state utilities commission, zoning — all that — and I just had to sign a piece of paper. So it really wasn’t a hassle or a bother to do it.” •