February 20, 2012

EcoVillage Installs Panels to Harness Solar Energy

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After 18 months of planning and construction, EcoVillage at Ithaca completed a solar panel array in December that will provide a majority of the community’s electrical power.

The system, which cost nearly $270,000, will generate 50 kilowatts of electricity — enough to offset between 50 and 60 percent of the community’s power consumption, according to a report released by EcoVillage. Leaders of the project say they hope that it will demonstrate the efficacy of renewable energy sources, such as solar power, on a small scale.

“There are a lot of ideas and concepts for how to change our society’s dubious trajectory, but they don’t mean much until someone actual tries living that way,” said Jeff Gilmore, an EcoVillage resident who helped spearhead the project’sorganization and financing. “Our particular style [at EcoVillage] is to start with the general, middle-class American lifestyle and modify it for a lower ecological footprint, more interdependency through the sharing of common spaces, tools and chores, and a somewhat tighter social engagement with the neighbors.”

Established in 1996, EcoVillage currently consists of two neighborhoods, each with 30 homes, and promotes an environmentally-friendly lifestyle for its residents.

The solar panels project was financed in part by tax credits and loans that will be paid off by residents “through the regular monthly charges for electricity,” according to its community newsletter. Though residents will not pay significantly more for electricity from the array, Gilmore said he was  pleasantly surprised by the lack of opposition to the project.

“I was surprised how easy it was to get consensus on this project,” Gilmore said. “This was a big financial commitment, and had a number of risk factors … [including] regulatory snags, mistakes in financial models, system design problems, cost overruns, et cetera.”

Gilmore said that although these potential snafus loomed in the minds of the residents planning the ambitious solar panel assembly, the project team was “very upfront about the risks” and allowed the residents to take the risks “knowingly as a group.”

Liz Walker, executive director for the EcoVillage’s Center for Sustainability Education, praised Gilmore and Tony Henderson, a member of the electrical company that installed the panels and an Ecovillage resident, for their dedication to both the idealistic and practical facets of the project.

“This kind of project does require a ‘burn­ing soul’ or two –– in this case Jeff Gilmore and Tony Henderson –– to have a vision, put in a lot of hard work, and see it through all of the obstacles to the point of completion,” Walker said in an email.

Walker also attributed the project’s success to the village residents’ ability to finance it. She said that she believes the solar array will not only provide “ultra-local, ultra-clean” energy, but that it will also prove to be an asset to the community’s ongoing educational work on sustainable living practices.

Echoing Gilmore’s expectations for the project, Walker added that she sees the project as an example she hopes other communities choose to follow.

Gilmore spoke optimistically about the possibility of moving from the smaller-scale success of EcoVillage’s solar project to larger endeavors, such as projects at Cornell.

“Cornell already has in place many of the things needed to make such a project work,” he said. “In particular, they already own their buildings and their land.”

Regardless of whether or not the project team’s services are requested by the University, Gilmore hopes that the EcoVillage project will “have the effect of helping people expanding their ideas of what is possible for regular folks to do.”

“There is a lot of value, I think, in having something you can point to and say: ‘If they did it, why can’t I?’” Gilmore said.

Original Author: Jacob Glick