By George Harvey
Eric Shenholm, founder of Saxtons River Solar Electric, in Saxtons River, Vermont, has developed a new type of solar collective that some people might like to know about. It is the sort of thing that many people might use profitably, and which could be replicated easily.
Shenholm has had a lot of experience in the solar business. In the 1970s, he was one of those who installed solar thermal heating systems. Though the business model that most installers of the time used did not survive, he always kept thinking about the advantages of solar power.
A few years ago, as the market started catching up with his thoughts on the subject and businesses started to open for a new round of installations, he thought about business models. He says, “I wanted to create a model that would give more people access to solar electricity and allow them to own their solar systems, even if they didn’t have the ideal conditions on their own properties. I also wanted to help reduce the initial costs of installing a system so more people would enjoy the long-term benefits of going solar.”
In 2008, Shenholm and his wife, artist Michele Ratté bought an eight-acre farm in Saxtons River, a village in southeastern Vermont. The land included a pasture with an unobstructed exposure for a solar system, and he began getting serious about putting up a system on the property. Once more, however, his thoughts turned to the question of how he could benefit other people around him. The more he thought about it, the more he saw that the solution lay in a novel business model.
Other people had addressed the same problem. They had come up with a variety of solutions. Shenholm, however, wanted to maximize the investment potentials of all people involved. The tax incentives offered by the federal government were not available to the customer under some business models. Some systems had an owner selling power to friends and family.
“I wanted to find a way for me and my neighbors to put in a system that would make power for all of us, but would also allow us to individually benefit from the tax breaks available,” Shenholm says.
Shenholm started talking with neighbors, and found several were interested in forming a collective with framework for members to own their own panels, but with some things owned in common or leased, depending on what made best sense. The legal and financial issues were all ironed out with attorneys and accountants, so there would be no unexpected issues at a later date.
Members owned their PVs and mounts individually, which meant that they could get tax credits for themselves. The most efficient way to interface with grid power was through a small number of inverters, so that equipment is held in common. Group net-metering is used to deal with production and consumption billing. The property on which the panels sit is Shenholm’s south-facing pasture, and individual PV owners lease very small plots of land on the property from him at low rates.
The initial purchase of PVs was made in October of 2013. Five individual systems, with a total of 108 panels, were installed, but since they were sited together, a lot of the labor and equipment was shared. They have a combined rated output of 27.54 kW, and cost a total of $94,000 to install. The cost of slightly less than $3.42 per watt is very low, but reflects the fact that the members of the group did as much as they could with their own labor, leaving only those parts of the work that had special requirements to the professionals.
The project has worked out well. One solar collective member said, “For years I’ve wanted to install solar PV panels at my home, but a large and beautiful tree made it impossible. Eric’s solar project has allowed my dream to come true, even to the extent of taking out my furnace and fuel tank and heating my home with a groundwater geothermal system. Finally my home is off fossil fuels!”
Since the project was finished, two additional members have joined, adding 48 panels. Anyone living in the Green Mountain Power territory could join the project, and Shenholm says there may be room for over 200 more panels.