The Solar Path: An Expandable Idea
Next week, Team Middlebury will erect our Solar Path, a center piece of our design. The team designed our PV panels to sit on a separate structure for many reasons. At first, it was a way to introduce flexibility into our design so that a home in an urban environment could also be net-zero. When we decided on a location for the final site for InSite on campus, we were challenged with a street that did not easily accommodate optimal solar-orientation. Removing our solar panels from their traditional place on the roof allowed our design to align directly with the street without making the form sacrifice its shape for solar-orientation for its panels; engaging the street was a driving point of InSiteful design, after all. What we found was that creating a separate element with our solar path also tied into other points of our mission, such as promoting walkability, and contributing to the social spaces of our home.
We also see the solar path as a way for many people to integrate solar energy into their communities without reconstruction or building anew, which could actually have a negative impact on sustainability as construction of all kinds require intensive resource usage. Although we use it for a private home, the Solar Path is also an expandable idea. Neighbors could invest together in a back-yard path, or a community could invest in a bigger array on a town green. Looking back on our project’s origins, this idea fits nicely into an idea that Self-Reliance’s Project Manager, Addison Godine, had when we first talked to him about our concept for InSite. He touched on the point that community solar investments have the best potential to bring renewable energy to urban areas, as not every home will have the space or sun-exposure to have private panels, but many people could pool resources to create an efficient community array.
In many cases, these community efforts become solar farms or fields. There are two great precedents of such projects near campus. Just outside of Vergennes sits a 1-megawatt solar farm called the Ferrisburgh Solar Farm. 3,800 panels comprise an array large enough to power 170 Vermont homes and in less than 3 years has already saved 5,000,000 lbs of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Equally as important is the educational opportunities the field provides. Driving between Middlebury and Burlington, it is impossible to miss the prominent array, integrating solar power with the community and familiarizing drivers with its prominence in the community. Middlebury College has also recently invested in a solar field of its own, putting up 36 tracking panels to the west of campus (just across from InSite’s construction site!) to create a 143 kw array.
Community arrays mean smaller up-front costs for investors as they have increased economies of scale. The siting opportunities of creating solar farms and fields allow panels to have optimal sun-exposure without shading or infringing on property laws. Grid-tied arrays contribute to the national grid and provide benefits for all investors. Metering solar power rather than storing it allows investors to produce their own power and receive monetary credit for excess generation. Grid-tie systems, such as InSite’s panels, also mean that solar energy is consistently being put to use and contributing to our energy portfolio, it doesn’t stop when a battery fills up. Cooperative investments create larger arrays that can generate local jobs for array-maintenance. Team Middlebury appreciates the potential for positive change in all of these aspects of community investment, but we also greatly believe in the educational opportunity and the community empowerment that such investments create.
The idea of the Solar Path originates with functional challenges the team faced early in the design phase. What we have found is that the flexibility of our path ties into much more comprehensive ideals that we believe in as a team. We are excited to share this expandable idea with visitors in Irvine and back in Middlebury, as well as with all of our supporters and friends. We hope flexible, attractive, and efficient solar structures can become commonplace in all of their many forms, be it a fixed array as on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh, or a landscaping feature such as our walkway.