STARKSBORO — This past weekend’s bright blue skies gave a burst of solar energy to Starksboro’s Common Ground Center, where a collection of world-renowned environmentalists, local residents and renewable energy developers congregated on Saturday to celebrate the grand opening of the nonprofit’s handicap accessible Eco-Lodge. Generating electricity from eight solar panels that track the sun and deriving hot water and heat from solar hot water heaters, the lodge also takes ecologic strides by using recycled and on-site harvested materials.
Experts at the opening of the new 3,845-square-foot building, the centerpiece of the summer camp and conference center off Tatro Road, said the lodge provides a model of habitat sensitivity and energy efficiency that could be used for future construction in Vermont and around the country.
Among those in attendance to “ooh” and “aah” at the structure’s environmental prowess were Ripton author Bill McKibben, All Earth Renewables President and CEO David Blittersdorf and representatives who spoke on behalf of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“Twenty years ago … we’d talk about solar and wind power … but it wasn’t quite ready for primetime yet,” said McKibben at the Eco-Lodge opening ceremony. “But thanks to engineers and entrepreneurs like David Blittersdorf … now it really is … now we can do it. The question is whether we’ll do it fast enough to matter or not. And that’s less a question of technological prowess than it is political will.”
Speakers commended Common Ground officials for the innovative steps they took to develop a sustainable and energy-efficient design for the lodge.
“I think Vermont will lead (renewable energy development), and this (structure at Common Ground) is an example of leading, probably the rest of the United States in what to do,” said Blittersdorf. “We’re a tremendously small state. If we can’t do it here, can we do it anywhere?”
McKibben, a Scholar in Residence at Middlebury College and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, sternly warned that if humans don’t follow an Eco-Lodge course for the future, we’re in for a bumpy ride as the climate warms.
“If one degree (rise in global temperatures) is enough to melt the arctic, we’d be idiots to find out what four degrees would do. But we’re going to find out unless we take dramatic, powerful action soon,” said McKibben. “And some of that action is just the kind of action that’s going on here at the Common Ground Center. That’s why it’s so beautiful to see those trackers … and that solar hot water up there on the roof. This stuff helps enormously.”
Designed by Burlington architect Carol Stenberg, the eight-room Eco-Lodge’s capacity to sleep 30 and hold 55 in its common room, is a testament to green design from its methods of power production to the materials it employs.
As the Eco-Lodge is put to the test this summer — hosting a wide range of weddings, company retreats, education programs and its staple family summer camp — Common Ground co-founders Jim Mendell and Peg Kamens of Starksboro (a husband-wife duo) boast that 100 percent of the center’s electricity will come from solar.
Of the eight solar tracker arrays that provide energy to Common Ground, five are from All Earth Renewables and three are from Building Energy, both based in Williston. Common Ground has owned the three Building Energy trackers for several years, but they use what Kamens refers to as a slightly outdated technology of tracking the sun.
The five All Earth Renewables trackers use a global positioning system to rotate the solar panels in accord with the sun. Common Ground paid $1,000 up front to lease these trackers for five years. It also pays All Earth Renewables for electricity generated by these trackers at a fixed rate of 18 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).
For every kWh produced by these five solar trackers — whether used by Common Ground or not — the center gets a 6-cent subsidy. The energy that Common Ground doesn’t use goes to the electric grid and Green Mountain Power pays the center 13.5 cents per kWh. So, with the subsidy, Common Ground makes 1.5 cents on every kWh that it doesn’t use.
“In our situation, we’re actually making money,” said Kamens.
According to figures compiled by All Earth Renewables, Common Ground’s five trackers alone pumped out 134.9 kWh on Saturday and 168.2 kWh on Sunday.
What do these numbers mean?
The most recent Residential Energy Consumption Survey — conducted by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration — showed that 5.5 million New England households used an estimated 41 billion kWh for electricity in 2005. According to these numbers, one New England household used 7,454.54 kWh a year and 20.42 kWh a day.
So, on Sunday, the solar trackers produced enough energy to power more than eight average New England households.
The solar doesn’t stop there. Mendell explained that the solar hot water heaters on top of the lodge will provide the building with all of its hot water needs and hopefully 50 percent of its heat via radiant heat tubing. The lodge purchased an ultra-efficient gas burner for additional heat in the dead of winter.
The lodge design also incorporates other features to improve energy efficiency and make it environmentally friendly. It has a “green roof” filled with soilto provide insulation, which doubles as a growing space during the spring, summer and fall. For the rest of the house, designers used an insulation product called Rockwool, which is comprised of natural substances like rocks and minerals. Additionally, Kamens said the paints applied to the structure contain no toxins.
Recycled materials can be found throughout the house. The glass blocks used in the showers come from Recycle North in Burlington. Almost all of the tables were built from reclaimed woods. And the chandeliers were made from Lake Champlain driftwood collected by Stenberg.
“We use a lot of materials from our own site, too,” added Kamens.
The lodge’s foundation and the lamps in the rooms use rocks collected from around the property. The floors, kitchen counters, cabinets, several doors and other surfaces use a variety of hemlock, maple, birch, oak and beech harvested from the property’s 700 acres — 500 of which are preserved by the Vermont Land Trust.
“It’s very satisfying to use our own wood,” said Kamens. “It kind of brings the story of the forest into the building.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].