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Sweet Solar at Sidelands Sugarbush

Sidelands Sugarbush solar array. Photo courtesy of Southern Vermont Solar.

George Harvey

Dan Crocker is the owner of Sidelands Sugarbush, a maple sugar business in Putney, Vermont. Recently, the business had a fairly sizable solar array installed by Southern Vermont Solar (SVS). The story behind this goes a fair distance back in time, however, and some readers might like to learn about it.

Crocker was the Bellows Falls High School ski coach, and that is how he met Simon Piluski, who now is co-owner of SVS with his wife, Victoria Roberts. Back when Piluski was a teenager learning to ski and negotiate his way through life’s complexities, Crocker happened to be putting in a system of sap tubes at his sugarbush. Because he liked Piluski, Crocker offered him some work, and this laid the foundation for a supportive friendship that has lasted for years.

Piluski ended up doing well in high school and went on to Marlboro College, from which he graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science. Throughout the time, he kept working with Crocker. As he did so, Piluski became an electrician, and the two of them helped out a lot of Vermont sugarers move to high-efficiency pump controllers. Electrical work, in turn, led Piluski to solar photovoltaics (PVs) which became a passion.

Even then, Crocker was examining energy and ecological issues of his sugaring business. His inclination was to have a minimum negative impact on the environment and to improve it, if he could. His operation was big. He had 23,000 taps. He relied on vacuum pumps to collect sap from the trees, but these used large amounts of electricity. The evaporator was heated with oil. Reverse osmosis to reduce water content used a lot of electricity. These were all issues that had to be addressed.

Over ten years ago, Crocker switched to vegetable oil to avoid petroleum products. This has not been as easy as one might expect. Under European Union environmental rules, vegetable oil became highly desirable, and large amounts of it started to be shipped from the United States to Europe. The price went up to the point that it was no longer economical to use. Crocker saw he had to reduce dependence on oil as much as possible, and he began a serious study of sustainability, looking at just about any possible avenue for improvement.

Meanwhile, Piluski was getting a real education on solar development. He was certified for solar work by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). He built an off-grid home for his new family. He started a small electric and solar business. He soon became a Lead Designer for Soveren Solar, one of the most interesting companies in Vermont’s PV sector, with highly innovative practices. Piluski stayed with Soveren Solar for years.

Crocker, meanwhile, had come to see that he really needed to rely on his own, home-produced energy. With a sugarbush as large as the one he had, he could have used wood heavily, as much was being cut in maintaining his trees. But he could not see himself devoting the time it would take to process that much wood, and he could not see hiring people to do it either.

The time came, some years ago, when Crocker and Piluski talked about a solar system, but the price was not yet right. Of course, prices for solar systems were constantly dropping.

In 2017, Piluski and Roberts, decided to open their own solar business, Southern Vermont Solar. This was just about the time that Peter Thurell decided Soveren Solar would close because of the Trump trade tariffs. And that was the state of things when Crocker decided once again to look into solar power. This time, the price was right.

The PV system that Southern Vermont Solar developed for Sidelands Sugarbush has a capacity of 48.3 kilowatts. It should be no surprise that there were delays getting it all together, but they were overcome and the actual work of installing the system began in November of 2018, it was completed in December, and the system was turned on in January of 2019. Since that time, it has been providing electricity for Crocker’s business and two households.

That is not the end of the story. Crocker put in an air-to-water heat pump from Arctic Heat Pumps, which can provide water at the right temperature for radiant heat, even when it is well below zero outside. He also replaced the pumps he was using to draw sap with a screw pump that uses one third of the energy. He has set his sights on net-zero energy usage.

Crocker made one observation about renewable energy and business. “I don’t know why operations are not renewable,” he said. “They’re crazy not to be – it is a no-brainer.”

Sidelands Sugarbush is at 163 Burnett Rd, Westminster, VT. The number is 802-387-6606.

Southern Vermont Solar’s website is svtsolar.com. The number is (802) 387-0088).

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