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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Green Power Series: Solar Farms in the Northeast

Part I: Solar Farms Make a Difference with Renewable Power

meesphotography.com/Michael Mees/Flickr

Toby Martin

In the broadest sense, a farm can be defined as an area where something of sustainable value is deliberately propagated for human consumption, a concept that originated thousands of years ago with plants and animals when some people made a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Today, farming acres of electricity, once the exclusive domain of hydropower, has now evolved to solar generation, as on- and off-grid technology becomes increasingly available and affordable, and increasingly offsets the harmful carbon emissions created by fossil-fueled power plants.

Today’s climate crisis has created a focus on sustainability, human survival and technology that has brought solar energy into worldwide consciousness. Out of the solar power surge has come the dramatic growth of the solar industry and related businesses: new companies needing engineers, builders, inventors, electricians, manufacturers, certification, training, salespeople, office staff, installers, equipment. And now solar farms are becoming an important, relevant and fast-developing outgrowth of inventive thinking and economic development that offers opportunities for increasing numbers of people.

A solar farm is a large-scale, ground-mounted photovoltaic installation that collects solar energy to generate and transmit electricity to an electric utility grid system. Community-scale solar farms ordinarily generate from as little as 100kW (kilowatts) to five MW (megawatts), while commercial farms span from 1 MW to 2,000 MW. Community solar farms, on the other hand, serve their subscribing shareholders, while commercial systems serve a utility company’s customers. Both systems are clean, non-polluting energy producers.

Community solar farms are essentially electric companies that handle all operations, from negotiating property sale or lease of a site, hiring a solar contractor, and coordinating billing and coordinating other business once subscribers signs on.

Community solar, because it is independently owned and sited at a distance from its subscribers, unlike off-grid or net-metered home solar systems, is not tied to the fee requirements mandated by public utilities, and is therefore able to offer subscribers cost reductions between 10 and 15% lower than utilities’ standard offers. It also appeals to a diverse range of subscribers. Some are those are earning lower and middle incomes; and it can supply people who are renting, as well as provide a way for homeowners on a tight budget to invest in a reduced cost clean energy sharing approach that would not be possible otherwise. And it provides an alternative for home properties that have less than the roof or land installation area needed, poor solar orientation, or are densely wooded, all of which would prevent or limit onsite home solar.

But solar farms are also limited by the amount of power they can generate and number of subscribers they can serve. There are also environmental drawbacks and limitations. One of them is that the clean energy generated doesn’t go directly to its subscribers or customers, but is exported to the grid and its random mixture of fossil generated fuels from all the power companies supplying electricity to the national system. Community solar energy generated in New England may end up anywhere grid demand requires, powering the homes and factories in California, Texas. Ohio, or New Hampshire. Other concerning drawbacks include the loss of farmlands, forest, open spaces, and wild habitats.

The only systems that can deliver guaranteed clean solar energy are those that are off-line and not tied to the grid. The same applies to hydro and wind, which are also diluted as soon as they mix with carbon-emitting, fossil-fueled energy supply sources like gas. oil, or coal, which still provide most of the nation’s electric power.

Fatalists argue that the climate change solutions of the 2015 Paris Accords are an impossible dream, or a pipe dream at best, and that will continue to be true as long as the grid continues to distribute mixed power. Even so, solar farms can be a good match for people whose needs fit their service capabilities.

All four states where Green Energy Times is distributed – Maine, New Hampshire New York and Vermont – have solar farms. A little online research and a few phone calls can provide the information that leads to where they are and the services they provide. It seems clear that they just might be the answer to those who want to meet their goal to save money, have a personal impact on offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to building their state’s infrastructure and economy.

This is the introductory article, and follow-up articles are planned for December and February in this green power series. Next, we will focus on what solar innovators, developers, installers and others are doing to advance solar farms in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. Input is invited from solar farm professionals located in those states, via email, at ccc.isles@gmail.com.

Toby Martin lives in Islesboro, ME, where he works locally and statewide to strengthen Maine’s clean energy sustainability. A founding member of the Islesboro Energy Team and the Islesboro Energy Committee, he also coordinates the Islesboro Energy Conference, and he contributes to Green Energy Times as a writer and member of its new Maine distribution team.

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