State receives grant for solar powered projects (Rutland Herald)

By Peter Hirschfeld, Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER – A federal grant will fund the installation of solar-powered water heaters at affordable housing complexes in four Vermont towns.

Wednesday's announcement by Sen. Bernard Sanders marks the latest project in a series of investments that lawmakers hope will spark a solar boom in this cold-weather state.

The $500,000 federal appropriation, according to Sanders, will provide solar-heated water for more than 400 units of lower-income housing in Barre, Bennington, Brattleboro and Burlington. Vermont generates less than 1 percent of its energy needs via solar arrays, however Sanders and renewable energy advocates say the federal subsidies will bring the emerging technology into the mainstream and help minimize the state's reliance on fossil fuels.

"My view is that both for Vermont and America it is absolutely imperative that we break our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels generally and move towards sustainable energy," Sanders said Wednesday. "People sometimes think that because sun is not particularly prevalent in Vermont that solar energy is not a particularly useful form of sustainable energy here in Vermont, and that's wrong."

The affordable housing projects, to include the 120-unit Highgate apartment complex in Barre, are the latest in a recent string of high-dollar federal investments in solar. Sanders earlier this year secured $5 million for what will ultimately be the state's largest solar initiative at the Vermont National Guard's Camp Johnson in Colchester.

A $260,000 project at the Camels Hump Middle School in Richmond will fund a 75-kilowatt array of photovoltaic cells; Sanders also announced Wednesday a $500,000 appropriation for solar installations at 10 public schools in Vermont.

"And there's a strong education aspect to it, so it's helping to educate the next generation on what we think we will be much more common energy resource in future," said Andy Perchlik, head of Renewable Energy Vermont.

Critics of solar power say the technology makes no financial sense. Federal subsidies, they say, are propping up an industry that would otherwise be a prohibitively expensive alternative to more traditional energy sources.

Sanders concedes that solar energy carries higher production costs, but he said the market price for energy produced by fossil fuel fails to take into account the ancillary economic costs associated with oil or coal.

"We subsidize those energy sources as well, because when our children get sick from asthma or people become ill from inhaling coal particulates, we subsidize those through medical care," Sanders said. "And to the degree that fossil fuels are causing global warming, we are looking at trillions of dollars in damages to planet.

"So when we talk about subsidizing, you have to ask yourself, compared to what? Compared to global warming and massive planetary damage? Compared to illness?" he added.

Perchlik said the federal investments will help the technology evolve to a point where it can compete in the free market. Vermont could see 5 percent of its power coming from solar in the next 20 years, Perchlik said, largely because of the federal investments that are propelling the technology.

"Over time the price will keep coming down, but only if we keep investing in it and supporting it," Perchlik said. "The industry hasn't gotten any support from the federal government since the late 1970s. But we're starting to turn around so we're seeing a more rapid decrease in costs and a rapid increase in deployment."