VERGENNES — With the ceremonial flick of a giant switch last Wednesday, developers of the largest solar farm north of New Jersey fired up their $5 million project located on a 16-acre parcel off Route 7, next to Vergennes Union High School.
The project — known as the Ferrisburgh Solar Farm (FSF) — was spearheaded by Ernie Pomerleau and Brian Waxler, who playfully donned sunglasses to soften the glare of a series of strobe lights activated in the VUHS gym at the special unveiling on Dec. 15.
With The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background, Pomerleau and Waxler thanked their many helpers and supporters and described their future expectations for the 1-megawatt solar farm that features 3,806 photovoltaic panels that will harness enough sunlight to power 170 homes each year.
“We did not do it alone,” Pomerleau told the crowd of more than 100 colleagues, environmentalists, school officials, lawmakers and community leaders from both Vergennes and Ferrisburgh.
“I think it is going to be great for the community, great for the industry and we are going to move this ball up the field.”
Pomerleau has long-owned the 16-acre parcel on which FSF is located. The panels have been placed on eight acres of the parcel. He and his team successfully secured, through the Vermont Public Service Board, a green light to establish the solar farm. It is one of a limited number of similar projects approved for the Vermont Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) program, a state effort to encourage renewable energy development.
The SPEED program, started in 2005, was significantly revised in May 2009, when the Vermont Legislature passed a law that guarantees renewable energy producers will get long-term contracts with minimum rates for the power they produce. Under the law, energy producers will be paid a premium 30 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power, substantially higher than the rate for other sources.
Green Mountain Power will purchase the electricity.
Solar panels began arriving at the project site in August, according to Waxler. Those panels face south to take maximum advantage of the sun. The sun will be able to penetrate occasional coats of snow on the panels during the winter, and Waxler anticipates quick melting of winter precipitation off the equipment.
Waxler said work on FSF was substantially completed on Nov. 30. He said the project represents an important, local shift away from foreign oil to a renewable energy source that is gaining momentum. Another substantial solar farm is being pitched just a few miles south down Route 7, in New Haven.
Power consumers, Waxler said, won’t see any rate increase as a result of the project.
“What (consumers) will feel, hopefully, is a sense of pride as they drive by the solar farm and they see eight acres of solar panels, ” said Waxler, who said the development team took pains to source as much local labor and equipment as possible.
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence praised the project.
“Ferrisburgh is very fortunate to have this renewable energy project located in our town,” Lawrence said. “The Ferrisburgh Solar Farm is a good example of collaboration.”
Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley was among those present at the FSF unveiling ceremony. He said after years of speculation about what might be built on the 16-acre parcel at the city’s doorstep, it was nice to have closure — and with a project that a lot of people could support.
“It really is a unique thing,” Hawley said. “Obviously, it changes the view shed as you come down Woodman’s Hill, but I think it is kind of reflective of green energy and is a demonstration project — it is not hidden in the hill somewhere.”
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said she was “thrilled” to see FSF completed and put into service in her district.
“It is a feather in our cap,” she said, adding she is pleased to see the educational opportunities FSF will present for students at VUHS and throughout the county. The project features an educational kiosk at an entrance to the site off Monkton Road.
“I am looking forward to having an opportunity when I go back to the Statehouse to seeing how we can support these kind of initiatives even more so,” Lanpher said.
Peter Reynolds and Ed Webbley, VUHS co-principals, welcomed the new project.
“We are so glad to have new neighbors,” Reynolds said. “One of the buzzwords, and there are many in education, is ‘sustainability,’ and we are pleased to have that example next door.”
Webbley noted the VUHS science club has already begun to benefit from the project, studying the FSF setup and gleaning hands-on knowledge about solar power.
“It is tightening up the educational community,” Webbley said.
Mark Powers, a science teacher at VUHS, explained a variety of ways his students will benefit from the neighboring FSF. It will allow students to measure weather data and power generation numbers and find the correlation between the two, he said.
Powers noted the educational benefits will extend beyond environmental studies and into math, physics and other subjects.
“And it’s not just a part of a book — it’s here, part of the community,” Powers said.
Pomerleau believes FSF will offer a lot of sunny days ahead.
“I think this is good for the economy, it’s good for jobs and it’s good for the environment,” Pomerleau said. “It’s a clean project, and it’s one we are very, very proud of.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]