Ever since his arrival at The Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) four years ago, Executive Director, Charlie Rattigan, and the Board of Directors have wrestled with the question “How can we get VINS to go solar?” The team struggled with figuring out how a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization could raise the capital required to fund the purchase of a solar electric system large enough to offset their approximately $20,000 in annual electric bills. And even if they could afford it, siting the photovoltaic (PV) array in a way that made sense aesthetically would be a major concern. Any suggestion to put a system that large in their beautiful meadow would not be considered.
Then, in a 2018 visit to a Woodstock Rotary Club meeting, Rattigan heard Kevin Davis of Norwich Solar Technologies (NST) give a presentation highlighting his company’s nonprofit PV projects. Through his talk of Solar Service Agreements (SSA), where nonprofits and businesses with limited capital simply purchase discounted net-metering credits produced by solar power without actually needing to buy the solar array, Davis finally revealed the path for Charlie and the VINS organization to reap the benefits of renewable energy without the hurdle of a high upfront cost.
Rattigan says Davis’s talk on SSAs produced a “eureka moment” for him. He took the idea to his Board of Directors, and they promptly agreed that an SSA seemed like a good approach to take. “The economics appealed to us #1 because of the discounted rate offered on their electricity rates,” says Rattigan, “and because the arrays become available for us to purchase after seven years at a steep discount.”
If they do decide to purchase the system with a low-interest energy loan, “it will be paid off in roughly 12 years, giving them 13-18 years of no electricity costs so many generations of VINS will enjoy the power,” Rattigan added. NST’s Davis noted that although solar panels are warranted for 25 years, modern modules have an expected lifespan of 30 to 40 years.
VINS now has an 86-kW DC system producing 111,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year at their Nature Center in Quechee, Vermont and plan to use the yearly savings on electricity costs to sustain their mission of providing environmental education, research, and avian rehabilitation. NST provided guidance to VINS in choosing the most appropriate locations for the PV arrays, which are on the roof of one building and in a parking lot. Although it is common to have the arrays for an SSA offsite on land or an industrial rooftop leased from a third party, NST was able to maximize the design of onsite arrays to fit in with VINS’ overall plan for the project.
Without any capital expense or upfront cost, VINS is now expected to save over $3,000 in year one and more than $85,000 over the next 25 years. In addition, the VINS solar array will offset nearly 86 tons of CO2, the equivalent of 191,000 miles not driven, or 43 tons of coal not burned every year. “Since the arrays are in an employee parking lot and on a rooftop, they don’t intrude on the aesthetics of the site or the visitor experience, something important to VINS and an essential part of our design,” says Davis.