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(Photo courtesy of Bishop's Orchards Farm Market and Winery )
(Photo courtesy of Lavender Pond Farm )
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When customers go to the checkout counters at Bishop's Orchards, it's hard to miss the large flat screen TV mounted on the wall. The screen shows different graphs and meters but the instruments are not counting apple production – it's showing the current status and output of Bishop's vast solar systems.
With more and more people looking to into renewable energy for their homes – anything from solar panels to switching to LED lighting – businesses, and particularly agricultural businesses, along the shoreline region have been looking at ways to incorporate solar to help save the environment and reduce energy costs.
Back in 2014, after installing some solar features in his own home, Keith Bishop started to look at how he could bring solar to the farm. Today, on a plot of land directly across the street from the farm market, there is a sweeping crop of 1,108 photovoltaic panels that, combined with nearly 400 additional solar panels mounted on the Farm Market roof, are expected to generate 80 percent of the farm's electrical needs.
"We are excited to do something that has lasting value to decrease our electricity costs long-term as well as our footprint," he said. "The exciting part was being able to put together a financial package that after the first seven years we will have a breakeven of what our costs were and after that time period we will have paid off the capital and will have very low costs going forward."
Bishop's put in a bid with Eversource for the Zero Emissions Renewable Energy Credit Program, which dictates the amount generators are paid for the power they produce, and applied for and received additional permits and contracts required for this project from Eversource, as well as the town, state, and federal governments. Bishop's worked with Independence Solar as the primary contractor, assisted by Munger Construction, Apuzzo Electric, and SKED Electric.
The project is considered the first non-residential ground-mount solar array in Guilford as well as the largest in town. The challenge with the project was having the large solar field on a separate location from the main farm building. When you think about solar panels on a roof of a home, the panels are generating solar energy for the building they are attached to, but that isn't the case for the Bishop's field.
Moving the generated energy is made possible by something called virtual net metering, a process in which customers can assign energy generated to other metered accounts that are not physically connected.
State regulations allow only public utility companies to run power lines across the street, so in order for the Farm Market to be able to use the electricity produced across the street by the ground system, Bishop's needed to get permission to send the electricity produced into the power grid on one side and take it back on the other through a virtual net metering system, which unlike the electric meter on most homes and businesses, can run backward when power production exceeds power use.
"I have also been active in the agricultural side of things to make sure the legislation allows for future opportunities of farms to do productive solar," said Bishop. "We have our allocation and it's good for the life of our systems so about 20 years, and we just hope that isn't yanked out from under us by changing legislation which unfortunately can be changed after the fact."
The television screen in the farm market and the farm's website help demonstrate for customers exactly how that metering process works and how much energy is being generated. Bishop said many customers have been intrigued and impressed by the project.
"It does send a solar positive message and we are hoping that is part of us giving back to the community and showing that we care about what we are doing," he said. "Hopefully it helps people continue to support us a business."
While Bishop's is a large example of a farm following the solar trend, plenty of other farms and businesses in the area have incorporated solar features into their day-to-day operations as well.
At Lavender Pond Farm in Killingworth, visitors can see plenty of flowers, including a very specific solar SmartFlower that was installed back in 2017 according to the farm's Chris Salafia.
"We found the SmartFlower at the Connecticut Flower show and were impressed with both the technology and the aesthetics," said Salafia. "The way the system takes its cues from nature was obviously very appealing to us. Traditional rooftop systems were not something we were interested in. With the help of the Connecticut Farm Energy Program and the USDA Rural Development Office we were able to secure a REAP grant to make the purchase of the flower possible."
Salafia said the flower generates about 400 KWh a month – the equivalent of roughly $80 a month in energy savings – so it is a smaller system but it fits the farms requirements perfectly.
"The SmartFlower fits very well within our big picture mission of doing our small part to help make the world a more beautiful place," said Salafia. "When people visit here we want them to take back whatever they feel might be important to them. If it's insight into renewable energy than we're happy to have provided them that glimpse."
Going Green At Home
Bishop said the solar panels at the farm have sparked numerous conversations with people in town about adding solar to their homes or businesses. With programs like the one used at Bishop's that allow for the virtual net metering there is more flexibility for businesses and homeowners.
"It expands the opportunity for people who can't or won't put solar on the roof of their house but can then be involved with a solar developer who would then find a site that they would lease or rent to put solar up somewhere else," he said. "Then you would use a piece of that solar production to be transmitted to your house."
Bishop's said he has gotten inquires from condo associations in the area who are interested in remote solar installations because most condo associations, as well as other organizations in town, won't allow for panels to be mounted to the roof.
"I spoke to the Rotary Club about it a couple of months ago and a number of people were very interested in more of the commercial aspects with trying to do something for their businesses as well," he said.
Programs and initiatives exist across the state to help guide residents through going solar and saving energy in a home or business with rebates, financing, and services for energy efficiency and clean energy improvements. One such initiative is Energize Connecticut, which has a plethora of links to guide people through options for the home, a business, or even a whole town. For more information on the initiative visit www.energizect.com
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