By George Harvey
Bill Laberge, the founder of Grassroots Solar in Dorset, Vermont, has long been interested in sustainable living. He spent many years producing his own hand-made furniture, raising a family with his wife Lisa, dreaming of living a sustainable home, and even volunteering to work for SolarFest. Things began to change as the children became more grown up and spent less time at home.
We might say some things change and some do not. There were two big decisions to be made. Perhaps the more momentous was about where to live, and the couple decided that the place they loved most was where they were. But the other decision was about sustainability, and it entailed having Solar Pro, of Arlington, Vermont, install a 9.5-kilowatt solar system.
As the new solar system came alive, Laberge decided he wanted to share the experience with friends and neighbors, so he had a party. The party was such a success that the next day he had a new job at Solar Pro.
He worked at Solar Pro for two years, pushing the company to expand to new areas. His employers’ business plan was not the same as his, but they felt there was a lot of room in the market and suggested he might like to have a business of his own. They had trained him, but they did not need to hold him back. And so, in the beginning of 2015, he started Grassroots Solar.
Since that time, he has completed 19 installations. Most of these were solar installations, though there are many types of those, including off-grid and grid-tied, both with and without battery backup. They have installed roof-mounts, ground-mounts and trackers.
One thing that Laberge takes real interest in, however, is storage. He has taken a keen interest in batteries, and has looked deeply into the different technologies that are available. He regards Elon Musk’s announcement of the Tesla Powerwall line as a watershed event, because it made people serious about storage. The interest the Tesla batteries created did not blind him to other manufacturers, however, and he is happy to talk about the pros and cons of such batteries as the Encell, Juicebox, and Aquion.
Laberge’s expertise in off-grid systems has led to his being chosen for some very interesting work. One job that is particularly exciting is the solar and battery system for Emerald Lake State Park, in Dorset, Vermont. This project was announced by Green Mountain Power (GMP) late last summer. The situation was that park’s electric service was provided by a line that went through over half a mile of bad terrain, including marsh and swamp. It required $7,000 to $8,000 of repairs each year, usually because of trees that fell on it, and access slowed work greatly. When the state needed extensive work at the end of the winter, the engineers at GMP did the cost calculations and found that there would be a 20% saving if the park went entirely off-grid, using a solar system with batteries. The Vermont Parks Division loved the idea. And so did Laberge.
Laberge also takes great interest in smart metering and demand response. These, he says, offer both consumers and utilities opportunities to see some real cost savings. Utilities have long had the problem that the wholesale cost of power they had to buy at high demand times was often higher than the retail price they were allowed to charge. Smart metering and demand response allow customers the opportunity to defer use of power when demand is high, putting off consumption until demand and costs are low, saving money for both themselves and the utility. “Businesses that are feeling the burden of Peak Demand charges would help themselves by looking into peak shaving through battery systems,” Laberge has said.
Laberge expects this year or next to bring us to the point the economics of battery backup systems fall to the level that ordinary users can make economical use of them, regardless of whether they have renewable power generating systems. If that is the case, then we are on the cusp of yet another energy revolution.
The Grassroots Solar website is www.GrassrootsSolar.com. The phone number is (802) 681-3579.
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