Bristol store basking in glow of new solar array

BRISTOL — Bristol Beverage and Redemption Center is now catching some rays — 24.795 kW worth, to be exact.

With 87 roof-mounted solar panels installed in mid-April (plus two heat pumps), owner Adam LaPerle expects to cut his electricity bill in half and to eliminate the use of propane-based heating in his retail space entirely.

“I had been approached many times because this building the way that it faces is perfect for solar,” said LaPerle about his south-facing business on Prince Lane. “But at that point I basically was looking at that number going, ‘I just can’t swallow that right now’ in sort of the infancy of getting by in this business and building it. I just wasn’t ready to jump both feet in with that, but it’s always been on my mind.”

LaPerle bought Bristol Beverage in 2006 and has been building up the business for close to a decade. Like many Vermont buildings, the 4,000-square-foot structure has seen many uses and was originally built as a storage shed for the old Bristol Trading Post, LaPerle thinks in the 1960s or 1970s.

“It was never intended to be what it is now,” LaPerle said.

Five or so years ago, he put in a new standing seam roof and new siding, and insulated the walls. But jumping into a full-out solar installation wasn’t a step he was quite ready to take.

“Bristol Electronics, they come in here. They’re customers, so I know them. I talk to them regularly. So Dave Cobb had been asking me to do solar on this place for two years. Every sunny day, he’d immediately pop in: ‘Gee, you could be making your own electricity right now’ — ‘Well I know Dave,’” said LaPerle, chuckling.

This year LaPerle was finally ready to make the change.

The first step toward solar for Bristol Beverage was an engineering report on the roof to see if it could bear not just the panels but more specifically the panels plus snow load. That report said that before even thinking about installation the rafters had to be reinforced, something that LaPerle believes a lot of commercial spaces especially — given the engineering standards they must meet — might have to consider.

“This is an old building and I feel like a lot of commercial spaces are going to, if it’s a roof-mounted system, they will go through very similar things to what I went through,” said LaPerle.

Step two was bringing in Structural Energy Corp. (SEC) of Middlebury to assess his energy needs and decide on the best options for improving his building’s energy use and energy efficiency overall.

One unique aspect of LaPerle’s business is the importance of refrigeration. Bristol Beverage runs two huge banks of coolers for beer, cider, milk, bottled water, tea, chilled coffee, juice, lemonade and soft drinks; a wine cooler; a dairy-hot dog-local chicken cooler; a small fridge stocked just with Canada Dry; four ice chests; and individual freezers just for local meat, ice cream and pizzas. These, of course, must run 24/7.

SEC recommended replacing his retail space’s propane-driven Rinnai wall-mounted heaters with heat pumps. The heat pumps, explained SEC’s John MacIntyre, actually transfer heat out of the air and into a building and can be used to heat or cool a building. A heat pump, said MacIntyre, can gather heat and transfer it out of the ambient environment and into a home down to 13 degrees below zero and sometimes at temperatures even lower.

SEC President Jared Moats added that a heat pump uses the exact same principle as a refrigerator, which pumps heat out of the refrigerator “box” and vents it typically behind the fridge, where most homeowners never notice it.

“A heat pump is doing the same thing with your home,” said Moats. “It’s just doing it in reverse.”

LaPerle will still use propane heaters in the more warehouse-like parts of his building, which are subject to raising and lowering of large doors and big blasts of cold air.

The next step for SEC was to beef up Bristol Beverage’s attic insulation and to seal all the cracks — old vents, spaces around pipes and wires, any place at all where air — and warmth or cold — leaked out. LaPerle said these changes brought the R-value of his attic from 15 to 40. R-value is a measure of how well a material resists the transfer of heat and cold.

Finally, came the installation of the 87 solar panels.

GOING SOLAR

“Every job is a little bit different, but this one was just fun to work on because this one was really different. We really enjoyed this project,” said Chris Marion, co-owner of Bristol Electronics.

Marion explained that the panels LaPerle chose use a microinverter to convert the DC power generated by the panels into the AC that is used for standard electrical appliances. She also said that the payoff — the point at which the installation has paid for itself — for a home is typically 10 to 12 years, for a business such as LaPerle’s the payoff would be more like 8.8 years — depending on how a business owner does the accounting for depreciation.

LaPerle was also able to take advantage of federal tax credits for solar installations.

LaPerle took out a 10-year loan to pay for the project, but feels that he will be seeing benefit immediately because his electricity bill is now halved and he expects to no longer need propane heat inside the retail space. He also said that for him, the investment makes sense because he’s committed to his business and to his building over the long term. So, the way he figures it, he can pay the utility company or he can pay the loan for the renewable energy renovation and reap long-term rewards.

“All of a sudden next winter if I’m not buying propane then I’m immediately gaining. And my Green Mountain Power bill went from $1,300 to $600 so I’m gaining,” said LaPerle. “Do I still have a loan? Yes, I still have a loan. It’s still costing me money. It’s just that I’m paying the money to a loan instead of to buying power or buying propane.”

LaPerle also feels good about making a move toward renewable energy as a born and bred Vermonter, although he admits that as much as he’s supports rooftop solar, “to be honest, the stuff out in the fields drives me crazy. It should be on rooftops or in a commercial park.”

LaPerle is also looking forward to chatting with customers who are interested in seeing what he’s done and how it works.

Was moving his business toward renewable energy more for financial or more for environmental benefit? LaPerle said it’s both.

“Yes it’s a fiscal thing, but it’s certainly the right thing. And to me, I’m a Vermont guy. I grew up here. I was born here. I love the fact that Vermont is leading with this whole solar thing,” he said.

Have a story about a purpose built or renovation project to move your business towards renewables? Contact energy & the environment reporter Gaen Murphree at [email protected].

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