Emerald Lake State Park teams with Grassroots Solar for energy project

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MANCHESTER — A large portion of East Dorset's Emerald Lake State Park will now be powered by solar energy following a collaboration between Grassroots Solar and Green Mountain Power.

Not much will change for the park itself, which will still pay Green Mountain Power each month. Still, the change allows almost half of the State Park to operate on its own `micro-grid' says Grassroots Solar Founder Bill Laberge, who was recently appointed by Governor Scott to Vermont's Climate Action Commission.

"Green Mountain Power approached me about doing the whole project about a year and a half ago, and when we came here in the spring there was a tree hanging on the powerlines," said Laberge. "For this part of the powerline that runs south, they have to do $8,000 to $10,000 in repairs every year just because the trees are falling down on the lines."

"We had one line that was feeding two large chunks of the park, and it always went down. It became kind of a maintenance nightmare," said Craig Ferreira of Green Mountain Power. "Rather than continuing to maintain it, we figured we would pursue an alternative energy source with solar panels and a battery bank."

While the micro-grid still belongs to Green Mountain Power, it won't be attached to their larger grid through "twigs and twine," according to Laberge.

"Their whole point is to get rid of the grid," said Laberge. "This is going to be a micro-grid, so they're just going to cut the wires there eventually, and then they don't have to worry about maintaining this whole thing."

Though the southern portion of the State Park is now completely powered by solar energy, it will remain connected to the grid for the next year to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

"For a year we'll test it out and see if this can just run off of the solar, and then they'll cut the lines and not have to worry about making all of those repairs," said Laberge. "They want to see how this works, and they may think about doing [Campground] A as well. They actually have a really good spot near the entrance to put some solar panels."

The solar panels installed by Grassroots Solar will power Campground B and Campground C of the park, with Campground A and the entrance remaining on the grid.

"Nothing changes for Emerald Lake State Park, they're always going to pay Green Mountain Power for electricity," said Laberge. "We've got 32 panels, and then what we're doing is feeding that into the building over at Campground C."

Inverters and the lithium ion batteries used to store the solar energy, from a company called SimpliPhi, are in a shed approximately 350 ft from the panels themselves with a trench connecting the two. Another trench, about 1,200 ft long, connects Campground B to the micro-grid.

"We looked at what the loads are, their usage for the past couple of years, and we analyzed that to see what size inverter and battery bank we were going to need," said Laberge. "Right now it's running strictly on the solar. The grid is still attached to it, but they want to make sure that it's going to be enough."

While Laberge strives to plan for the worst-case scenario in residential installations, that process looked a little different for a park that is closed in winter months.

"For most off-grid systems we need to design it for winter, when you have the least amount of light. This is a little different because they're closed after Columbus Day, and they don't open again until spring," said Laberge. "I still tend to use those same parameters, we still look for the worst case scenario, but in this case that's Fall."

Laberge hopes that being on a micro-grid will help the park to develop some energy resilience, a concept that inspired him to enter the solar industry in the first place.

"What that resilience means is when things hit the fan as they seem to more and more, like in another Hurricane Irene event, we need to be able to provide our own power," said Laberge. "You can do that with solar tied to the grid and that's fine, but what happens when the grid goes down?"

Over time, Laberge hopes that more Vermonters will be able to supply their own power.

"This is the way I think the whole state should be. We're more resilient, we're more able to bounce back if events happen, and to me they are happening more frequently," said Laberge. "I'm trying to help Vermonters develop that resilience, because we can do this."

Going forward, Laberge hopes that Green Mountain Power can continue to pursue similar projects in other State Parks.

"I'm excited that the utility is the one that's driving this," said Laberge. "They're figuring out where they are going to be in this future scenario. From my perspective, everybody should be doing this."

"It's a really cool and innovative project that showcases the way that Green Mountain Power is doing business, and working to bring energy delivery closer to where it's being used," said Ferreira. "We began looking into another State Park as of last week, so there's definitely the potential to do another."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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