Together, Clermont residents harness the sun

CLERMONT—On Wednesday, December 20, the day before the darkest day of the calendar year, Hudson Solar announced the completion of the first community solar project in Columbia County.

Some two-dozen hardy souls bundled up on that cloudy, windy day for hot chocolate, cookies and the opening festivities. Many were members of the CSA. “We call them members,” said Jeff Irish, founder and president of Hudson Solar, in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Hudson Solar, with offices in Rhinebeck and Albany, designed and built the 214-kilowatt solar installation on one acre off Route 9G. The project can accommodate up to 40 members, according to a press release. These are small businesses and households–including residential tenants–that don’t have a roof for solar or don’t want to put solar panels on their roof.

A drone’s-eye view of the Clermont solar field on a chilly opening day, December 20. At lower right, visitors gather around a table serving cookies and hot chocolate. Photo contributed

Similar to Community Supported Agriculture, the members pay up front for the panels, but instead of a season’s worth of produce, they get 25 years of electrical output.

“Over the term of it, they’ll get approximately two and a half times their money back,” said Mr. Irish. “It’s approximate because we don’t have a forecast of where electric prices will go in the 25-year term.”

The upfront cost depends on the number of solar panels purchased. New York State requires a minimum of three panels and a maximum that is equal to the number of panels needed to offset all of a member’s electric usage.

“Some people purchase a few,” said Mr. Irish, “but most try to offset 100%. If you can do that, then you will get electric bills that consist of nothing but the fixed monthly service charge.

“People like the predictability of knowing that when they open that bill, despite record cold weather, they will just have a $20 service fee to pay,” he added.

The environmental benefits include removing about 71 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, according to a press release.

Other solar fields that people may be familiar with are remote net meter projects, said Mr. Irish, such as the one on Route 23 near the Taconic Hills Central School District. Those types of facilities were first constructed about 10 years ago and their electrical output goes to a commercial or institutional entity.

Community solar is still very new, he said. “This one [in Clermont] is only the 13th in the state and the first ground-mounted project south of Albany.” A community solar project of about the same size in Kingston is roof-mounted.

A system the size of Clermont’s costs about $250,000 to $300,000, said Mr. Irish. Hudson Solar received $65,000 in state funding through NY-Sun, Governor Cuomo’s $1-billion fund to advance solar and move the state closer to having a sustainable, self-sufficient solar industry.

The company received no other funding toward the cost of the project, Mr. Irish said. And the $65,00 is passed on to the members. That is, “we reduce what we collect from them,” he said.

Hudson Solar, founded in 2003, has been selling residential solar systems in the region for 15 years. To market the Clermont field, the company went to its “long list of people who have wanted to buy solar from us,” said Mr. Irish, “but couldn’t put it on their roof or didn’t want to. That’s the state’s intent—to open solar to the other 75%.”

The project took about a year and a half to complete. “Clermont was good to work with,” said Mr. Irish. “When we first applied, solar wasn’t in their zoning law. We educated them, and then they wanted to write a solar zoning law that would make sense for the community.”

For example, under Clermont town law, the solar field should not be visible from the road. Hudson Solar had a location picked out that met that requirement. “The building inspector drove by three times because he couldn’t find it,” said Mr. Irish, “and that’s with the leaves off the trees.”

In addition to Mr. Irish, speakers at the December 20 event included David Sandbank, director of NY-Sun; representatives from the offices of Assembly Member Didi Barrett (D-106) and State Senator Kathleen Marchione (R-43); and Jeffrey Hunt, president and CEO of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Hunt gave Mr. Irish a certificate that congratulated the project on “going live,” and the group gathered for the traditional ribbon-cutting.

Then the CSA members in the group spread out, invited by Mr. Irish to sign their panels. “It was muddy,” he said, ‘but some of them did it, and it was nice to see. They wrote their kids’ names, their grandparents’ names, things like ‘For the future of the planet.’”

Then the party was over and the panels were left to the beauty in the eye of the beholder, at least one visitor, in addition to Mr. Irish. “They sit there in the sun—silent, no pollution, no moving parts, just generating electricity,” he said. “It’s kind of cool.”

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