New Community Solar System Powers 30 Homes

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Tompkins Weekly 2/6/12
By Liz Walker

The EcoVillage Cohousing Cooperative has taken a big step towards lowering its ecological footprint and improving its economic independence. Rather than letting rising prices and dirty energy markets dictate how resident energy dollars will be spent, this community of 30 households decided instead to self-finance a new energy system. The Co-op itself has become the power provider to the residents, selling local solar power and purchased utility power from clean suppliers.

The finishing touches have been applied to the 50 kilowatt, ground-mounted array, the second-largest in the county, after the Tompkins County Public Library, which is 143 KW. The huge array is expected to offset 60% of the homes’ usage and avoid over 250 tons of CO2 per year. It could also provide a model for other cooperatives and condominium associations around the country.

Taking Charge
The $275,000 EcoVillage PV installation and smart metering system was financed by interest-bearing loans from a subset of residents, which are paid off over time through regular monthly charges for electricity. After rebates and tax incentives, the system will cost just $88,000. Residents pay the same as they would have paid the utility directly, but much of that money now stays within the community and pays off the system over a period of between 12-15 years. Solar also helps to insulate residents from the impact of rising energy costs, since the price (free) never goes up!

“This allows us to get over half of our power from renewables,” said Jeff Gilmore. He and Tony Henderson, of Hayes Electric, both EcoVillage residents, were the principle organizers of the project, along with local contractor Tim Hayes. “It’s also a creative financing model that other cooperatives can use,” he added. “People in the community were involved both as financiers and employees.” In fact, the project created four local full-time jobs and four part-time jobs in 2011.

Overcoming Hurdles
The project was not without challenges. Ironically, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, arguably caused by fossil-fuel induced climate change, caused one of the biggest hurdles – putting stakes in the ground. Between the rocky soil and the deluge of water from the storms, the wet holes were open for a full three months before concrete could be poured.

The other major challenge has been working out the regulatory side with the local utility, NYSEG, and the Public Utility Commission. Figuring out all the details has taken a lot of work. The solar system is master-metered through use of four existing energy centers in the neighborhood. “This wouldn’t have been possible if we had to apply for thirty separate systems,” said Tony Henderson, who handled the paperwork. “This way we only needed four utility connections, four inverters, and four applications for incentives.”

Both Henderson and Gilmore agreed that all the challenges were worth the final result. “It was personally fulfilling to be part of a large, collaborative community project,” Henderson reflected.

Smart Metering
The neighborhood also upgraded its metering system to smart meters. Previously, each house had a private account with the utility and a typical “dumb” meter, so residents had no way to monitor their daily energy use, and community-level information was not available.

The new system will provide easy web-based tools to monitor both short and long term patterns, allowing for better everyday decisions about usage. “The metering is very exciting,” said Gilmore. “We’ll be able to get a grip on what we use.”

For a slideshow and short video see:

Liz Walker is co-founder and Executive Director of EcoVillage at Ithaca

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