A new canopy solar array is going up over The Alchemist's parking lot in Stowe. Developers say it’s the first of its kind in Vermont and could become the new standard for businesses going solar.
If you're going to put up a solar canopy over a parking lot in Vermont, and especially in Stowe, you have to worry about one major thing: snow. It's a challenge that solar installer SunCommon is taking on as it works to build the state's first major solar canopy.
"The snow load engineering capacity is higher here [in Stowe] than just about anywhere in the state," SunCommon co-founder James Moore. "So we figured if we can do it here and get it right, then we can do it anywhere."
Solar canopies are basically steel structures supporting slabs of solar panels, strategically placed throughout a parking lot. Cars park under the panels, which shelter vehicles from the weather – be it hot sun or rain or snow.
"We do see solar canopies elsewhere around the country, and even here in the Northeast, but this is the first of its kind and scale here in Vermont," Moore explained.
The canopy is going up in the parking lot of The Alchemist Brewery and Visitors Center in Stowe. Owners Jen and John Kimmich have made a commitment to run their business as close to net zero as possible.
"Our business completely depends on the environment," John Kimmich said. "All of our ingredients – our barley crop in England, our hop crop out in Washington and Oregon, these are our concerns. Our water supply here, the cleanliness of our water. ... I don’t know how you could be a brewer and not be an environmentalist."
John Kimmich also said renewable energy is smart business.
"We are not climate deniers," he said. "We are big believers in climate change and we are looking 20, 30 years down the road and what we’re gonna need to do to get a little security in that sense."
The Alchemist's other plant, in Waterbury, is powered through net metering and rooftop solar. But the Stowe brewery is a bigger operation. So the Kimmichs are trying something new.
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SunCommon's Moore said utilities and utility regulators in Vermont are calling for solar projects to be located in what he calls "the built environment." That means putting solar panels on rooftops and other existing infrastructure, rather than creating remote solar farms.
"This is generating the clean electricity right where it’s going to be used," said Moore. "And that is what we need for a truly clean, local, stable and strong electric grid."
Moore said there aren’t actually enough rooftops in Vermont to meet the state’s energy needs.
But, John Kimmich adds, there are plenty of parking lots: "So when you start talking about ‘rooftops aren’t enough,’ there is plenty of pavement in this state where we could install situations just like this and really start making a dent in what we have to do as a state," he said.
And John Kimmich added that paved parking lots are necessary, but that doesn’t mean they have to serve only one purpose.
"Once you pave a parking lot, it’s a dead space. … It’s like, that’s it, you’ve sealed that earth off from the environment," said Kimmich. "And so we need to do something with it – something smart with it. And that’s where the solar panels come in."
Jen Kimmich said this project’s 400 or so solar panels won’t cover all of the Stowe brewery’s power needs, but it should make a significant dent.
"We don’t know exactly how much power it’s going to produce," she said. "I think we’re hoping close to half, and then once we know exactly how much power we’re generating, we hope to be able to net meter the rest so that we’re 100 percent solar powered."
Moore said one reason solar canopies have yet to catch on in Vermont is because until now no one has wanted to go through the expense and uncertainty of being the first. But once The Alchemist project comes online, he said he believes it will be the first of many.
Disclosure: The Alchemist is a VPR underwriter.