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The Solar Triangle : International edition : Wednesday, 12 August 2020 16:04 ST : a service of The Public Press
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The Solar Triangle

By Stephen Morris

     by Stephen Morris

Draw a line from Brattleboro to Calais and back down to the eastern-border town of Thetford. Inside that triangle is Vermont's solar-power center.

Find a map of the average available sunlight in the United States. You will quickly see that Vermont is seemingly a lousy place in which to consider the use of solar energy. Next, get a list of the states that offer financial incentives for the installation of renewable-energy products. It will tell you that Vermont is not the most generous benefactor of solar-energy incentives.

Now get a list of the homes on the American Solar Energy Society's annual tour of solar homes. Scroll down to V and you will see (not literally) "Welcome to Vermont, Solar Shangrila." Connect the dots on the perimeter of the participating homes, and you'll define an area sometimes called Vermont's Solar Triangle. Its borders are Thetford to the east, Brattleboro to the south, and Calais to the north. Put a star on Strafford, the unofficial capital, where an estimated 10 percent of the homes have solar panels, a wind-generator, or some form of renewable energy. Within these boundaries lies a concentration of solar-powered homes that is unparalled anywhere else in the country. Broaden the definition of renewable energy to include woodstoves (wood being a renewable fuel) and the claim becomes beyond challenge.

There are as many explanations for why Vermont has such a high proliferation of renewable energy as there are users. To wit:

It's the Topography

Jeff Wolfe, co-founder (with wife, Dori) of Global Resource Options, a distributor of renewable-energy products with offices in Strafford and White River Junction, attributes the solar-power phenomenon to Vermont's dirt roads. It has nothing to do with Mud Season, says Wolfe. "Vermont's network of gravel roads means that there is ready access to land that is not serviced by the power grid." This land was underpriced back in the 1970s, according to Wolfe, and was purchased by back-to-the-landers responding to the siren songs of Mother Earth News and The Whole Earth Catalog. They couldn't afford to bring in the electric lines, so they opted instead for solar panels, developed initially for the space program, but available for the first time to consumers.

The combination of a solar panel, storage batteries, and a woodstove enabled a simple but comfortable lifestyle, complete with Grateful Dead tunes. Paul Kifner, now renown in musical circles as a member of the Strafford Blues Band, fits this profile. "I moved to the back woods 25 years ago, because it was land I could afford. Over the years we have slowly gone to a nice little solar setup that we built in stages as the needs of our family grew and our finances allowed. My setup is pretty modest: six panels with six batteries. We can coast two days for one day of sun."

Kifner's life is so self-contained that he even runs his business using solar power: "As a wood-worker nothing compares to the feeling of running your shop equipment on the sun. To create a stack of kitchen cabinets off of sunshine is pretty neat."quiet zone

Jim Schley, who built his home in a small off-the-power-grid community, says it was not only land, but also houses in need of restoration that boosted the use of solar.

"For many years, solar energy has been more common here than in far sunnier climes because a surprisingly high percentage of Vermonters have built or renovated their own homes," says Schley, a writer and editor. "The existing utility infrastructure has been unusually antiquated, fragmentary, and incomplete."
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It's the People

John Hawkins of Strafford mentions legendary homesteaders Scott and Helen Nearing, Earth Day 1970, the geopolitics of energy, global warming, and "Vermont's ethos of self-sufficiency" to explain the local proliferation of renewable energy. Hawkins and family moved to the state 27 years ago from the even more-frigid and less-populated reaches of Northern Minnesota. (When is the last time you met someone who moved to Vermont because it was "warmer and more crowded"?)

Originally inspired by The Whole Earth Catalog, the Hawkins family has found ways to balance community with a global perspective. John has served as a selectman, and his wife has taught in the local schools for more than 20 years. In 1999 Hawkins says he decided to "get serious" about the threats of global warming. He is currently chair of the board of a national foundation whose goals include preventing irreversible damage to the environment and promoting more efficient, economically sound, environmentally beneficial, and equitable use of land and natural resources. One town over, Niko Horster lives with his wife Donna and two young children in a modern straw bale house built around a tiled central atrium where banana trees grow. (Yes, bananas!) A building contractor who specializes in green (environmentally-friendly) materials, Horster and his wife decided that an Upper Valley location should not be a limiting factor in aesthetic preferences, so they designed a home that would not be out of place in Taos or Crested Butte.

Horster divides Vermont's solar community into three categories: 1.) back-to-the-landers who emigrated to the state in the 1970s; 2.) "preparedness" advocates, mostly flatlanders fueled by fears of Y2K; and 3.) people taking advantage of recent rebates and tax incentives. His own system features 1.5 Kilowatt of grid-intertied PV (photovoltaic) solar thermal heating, and solar thermal domestic hot water. When he built his house in 1998, it was entirely off the power grid. ("Off the grid" is the phrase used in Vermont for those not connected to utilities.) As the needs of the Horster family grew ("more lights, more laundry, more water pumping"), he brought in grid power to balance the fluctuating consumption. Now, when he produces excess power, it goes into the power grid, running his meter backwards and reducing his electric bill. Of course, Horster fits none of the aforementioned 1 to 3 stereotypes, indicating that one of the characteristics of Vermont's solar community is a resistance to categorization. His rationalization of his decision to connect to the grid is proof-positive.

"Despite the drawbacks of the grid-high transmission losses and non-sustainable fuels -- it is preferable to running a fossil-fuel powered back-up generator. Now that our local utility offers a 'green' power option that supports local farmers with a methane gas power plant, the grid has become more attractive and guilt-free. Our family can still claim a one-hundred percent renewable power supply."

It's the Technology

Indeed, Vermont finally has "net metering," meaning that surplus power generated by a homeowner must be purchased by the power companies at the same price for which it is sold. The importance of this is enormous, because it gives the homeowner a twofold reason for justifying the initial investment in renewable energy -- the security of back-up power and reduced electric bills. An added benefit is lack of the need for a large bank of storage batteries, which reduces cost and maintenance of a solar-power system.

Global Resource Options' Jeff Wolfe is a huge fan of grid-intertie systems. "Some solar purists have been critical about the intermingling of renewable systems with the power grid, but it's nearly impossible to power a household from December through February on the available sunlight in Vermont. Multiple sources make all the sense in the world. Even the grid itself is getting power from multiple sources. If the grid relied on a single source, it would be down half the time." Getting the local utilities to embrace grid-intertie systems was no mean feat and required persistence on the part of activist consumers like John Hawkins. Eventually, the utilities stopped their entrenched resistance and allowed power-producing consumers to sell excess power to back to them. This has enabled folks like Peggy and Lou Kannenstine, who live in a very traditional 1920s home in Woodstock, to work with Global Resource Options to "solarize" their home and barn. Now they have secure backup power and lower electric bills to go along with their environmental dividend of knowing that another homestead in the Solar Triangle is not requiring more power generation from a coal, gas, or nuclear-powered plant.

It's the Culture

Like many Vermonters, Jim Schley pieces together a livelihood from a variety of jobs, ranging from teaching to carpentry to performing to poetry. He sees the local embrace of solar power as being a natural outgrowth of an iconoclastic spirit. "There is an attitude or outlook among Vermonters that places value on political positions and day-to-day behaviors that are quirky and contrary to 'normal' modern-day American positions." He cites factors including "our idiosyncratic congressional delegation to civil unions and anti-war agitation."

Fellow Straffordite John Hawkins agrees, adding to the list of things uniquely Vermont the prohibition on outdoor advertising, Ben&Jerry's, Howard Dean, and town meeting. "This state is a quirky, wonderful, individualistic place that still manages to hold onto ideas of community, self-reliance, and involvement in the world all at the same time."

There's an element of North Country life that involves hardship and doing without, but none of the homeowners interviewed for this article seemed to be doing much "doing without." Here's the roster of equipment in the Schley household, according to Jim Schley: "We have a propane kitchen range and a propane water heater and a small (35,000 BTUs) backup direct-vent propane heater, in addition to an efficient woodstove. The house is well-insulated but by no means 'superinsulated.' We use laptop computers and all of our lamps are compact fluorescents. (Incandescents are foolhardy in a solar-electric home.) We have a VCR, a super-efficient Staber clothes washer which runs on the solar, plus all of the ordinary household appliances: coffee grinder, vacuum cleaner, and so on."

It's a far cry from the image of a solar-household family shivering as they gather beneath a single lightbulb dangling from a cord.

It's the Economics

Paul Scheckel is an energy "pro," a professional energy auditor, also the author of a soon-to-be-released book on home energy efficiency, The Home Energy Diet (New Society Publishing, 2005). He provides the following parameters for judging if an investment in solar makes economic sense: "Assume about $25,000 to have a state-of-the art solar-power system with backup generator installed. It costs anywhere from $7 per foot (overhead, easy terrain) to $14 per foot (or more for underground) to run power lines." By rough calculation, this means that anyone living one-half mile from the power grid will do better with solar than by extending lines.

For Paul Kifner, Jim Schley, John Hawkins, and Scheckel, this was the basic calculation that pointed toward solar. Schley's case is typical: "To bring a line extension to our house site would have cost $30,000, so we didn't even consider that option, believing that solar would be sufficient for our needs. We spent a little over a tenth of the cost of the utility line on our initial solar system, With minimal supplemental use (several times each week) of a small backup gasoline generator in December and January, our solar system has proven self-sufficient year-round." Remote homesteads, however, are the exception, and not the rule, even in rural Vermont. Scheckel states categorically that solar-electric systems "make absolutely no economic sense if you already have grid power." He adds that there can be legitimate reasons beyond economy, such as for those who want to make a "green" statement, or for seeking autonomy in case of grid failure. Increasingly, people are seeing the benefits of this option.

Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman and her husband Robin fall into the latter categories. A Peace Corps volunteer who was profoundly affected by her observation of the effects of a slash-and-burn society in Kenya, she has been promoting renewable energy for years through SolarFest, a summer event that mixes energy education with good music. Their home is solar thermal, heated by a combination of radiant energy from the sun and an efficient woodstove. Their plan is to reinvest some of their savings into a solar-electric system.

"We do not have the money to go solar electric (yet!). For us, to go solar electric takes a motivation other than financial. For me that motivation is concern to add as little as possible to the destruction of the planet," she says.

It's All of the Above

In the final analysis, the acceptance of solar energy is not about the technology, government incentives, topography, or economics. It's about the people who live here. Vermont is the "chosen" state, because so many people have either chosen to move here or chosen to stay. Having made that basic choice, the secondary question is "How do we keep it the great place that it is?"

Solar power is not the solution to global warming, acid rain, and tensions in the Middle East. It is, arguably, part of the solution. Not long ago, John Hawkins reached a decision crossroads-whether to expand his photovoltaic setup or invest in a hybrid car. He chose the latter. For the environment, this was an equally beneficial decision, in his opinion.

For every Jeff Wolfe, who sees the rest of the country eventually reaching the same conclusions as the solar advocates in the Solar Triangle, there is a Jim Schley who is less sanguine about people moving toward a solar future: "Alas, I see more Vermonters adopting 'normal' suburban commuting and consumerist routines, with fewer people growing their own food, building their own homes, or choosing solar options over utility hook-ups. While I know more than a dozen families living off the grid in our area, in recent years I've seen another dozen who would have been great candidates for solar-electric systems who decided instead to invest six to ten thousand dollars in conventional line extensions. To my surprise, given our own success with a solar-electric house, solar remains a 'novelty' among homeowners."

Count John Hawkins in the camp that thinks the rest of the world will become more like Vermont. "It is only a matter of time before demand will reduce costs for solar, while dwindling fossil resources become more costly. How much time depends on leadership and the activity of renewable-energy advocates, businesses, and people."

The scenarios for our energy future range from bleak to hopeful, with enough variables that concensus among experts does not exist. But the dedicated solar-power practitioners in Vermont's Solar Triangle have shown that if solar works here, it can work almost anywhere. After contemplating the prospect of Vermont becoming more like the rest of the world, the prospect of the rest of the world becoming more like Vermont is comforting indeed.

11,967 neighbors have viewed this article.

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