Just up Route 30 from the College’s organic farm is a new venture that also runs on sunlight: the one-and-a-half acre solar farm installed this spring. The 34 pole-mounted solar arrays are projected to produce an average of 200,000 kilowatt-hours annually—enough electricity to power a 200-student residence building the size of Battell Hall.
A key to the solar farm’s power potential is the installation of innovative AllSun Trackers, which tilt the solar panels to keep them perpendicular to the sun for greatest energy gain. According to David Blittersdorf, founder and CEO of Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, his company’s solar trackers use GPS and wireless technology to follow the sun throughout the day, producing more than 40 percent more energy than fixed solar panels of comparable size. The company constructs the equipment at its Williston facility, using many parts made in Vermont. AllEarth subcontracted the installation of Middlebury’s site to Weybridge-based Backspin Renewables.
“Middlebury College continues to walk the walk in energy leadership,” said Blittersdorf. “A product of student research in the College’s environmental studies program, this solar farm will put front and center the benefits of advanced solar technology for one of the leading academic institutions in the country. We are pleased that Backspin Renewables, a local Addison County solar tracker installer, [built] this project.”
“We’re excited to have this system to explore the potential for additional solar power in the future,” said Jack Byrne, Middlebury College director of sustainability integration. “This is a demonstration project that offers an opportunity for student learning and research, as well as one more option to explore as we pursue our goal to become carbon neutral by 2016. Staff will also have the chance to gain an understanding of the operational aspects of a solar energy system.”
Solar energy is not completely new to Middlebury. Solar panels were mounted on Farrell House in 2003 and on the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest in 2008, but the new project is significantly larger than the installations on those two College buildings. Byrne said the new system produces about fifteen times the power of the existing panels.
According to Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay, for several years students in a number of academic courses have expressed an interest in developing a solar energy system at Middlebury. In 2010, students in the environmental studies seminar taught by Professor of Environmental and Biosphere Studies Steve Trombulak recommended the College commission a solar project with AllEarth.
Caleb Elder, an AllEarth Renewables employee and a 2004 Middlebury graduate, had heard about the student interest and approached administrators in 2011 about constructing a solar system. College officials referred back to the recommendations made by an environmental studies senior seminar and realized that the timing was right for such a project.
Meanwhile, four students in Professor of Economics Jon Isham’s fall semester environmental economics class were in search of a research project that could contribute to the College’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2016. After meeting with administrators, they decided to help the College assess whether or not to move forward with AllEarth. In their final report, “The Cost-Benefit Analysis of a Proposed Small-Scale Solar Farm at Middlebury College,” they concluded that a project with AllEarth would have a positive economic and social impact.
Based on current and projected electric rates and at a predicted production of 200,000 kWh annually, the system is expected to save the college about $5,000 to $10,000 per year. “From a financial standpoint, this is a low-risk project with a positive impact,” said Middlebury College Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Patrick Norton. “At current rates, we will earn money for every kWh produced and we will retain rights to the clean energy credits.”
Not only does the solar farm benefit the College financially and help with environmental goals, but it also serves as an excellent educational resource. Camille Seyler ’14, one of the environmental economics students who worked on the cost-benefit analysis, lists the project as one of her most valuable educational experiences at Middlebury thus far. “I got to experience a real-world situation where I had to work with my teammates to learn something challenging and beyond what we thought we were capable of,” she says. Her classmate Ali Rotatori ’14 adds, “Now every time I see the panels through the windows of Ross Dining Hall, I am reminded of not only all the hard work we put into the project but also all the knowledge gained from the class and the experience.”
To ensure that the array will continue to offer research opportunities for Middlebury students, Byrne has collaborated with members of the science faculty to specify metering equipment that will provide long-term data about the panels’ performance.
“Once again, we are grateful to our students for their energy and commitment to sustainability,” said Byrne. “As with the biomass plant, they provided the initial research and interest that helped make this project possible.”
About AllEarth Renewables, Inc.
AllEarth Renewables is a Vermont company that specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of complete grid-connected solar renewable energy systems that lessen dependence on nuclear and fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The company’s goal is to provide turnkey products that harness the power of the sun for homes and businesses while creating sustainable, well-paying jobs. Its AllSun Tracker was selected as a “Top-10 Green Product of the Year” by BuildingGreen, Inc. In 2011, AllEarth Renewables’ CEO was named one of 25 of “America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs” by Businessweek.