Ryegate Farmer Leasing Land For Solar Says 'Harvesting Sunlight' Is An Old Business Model

Jan 19, 2016

Farmers have become allies in renewable energy development in Vermont; often they have plenty of land, but struggle to make a profit. Farmers who offer to lease their land for solar installations sometimes are met with intense opposition. But one Ryegate farmer’s solar project appears to have the blessings of his neighbors.

Before we meet this farmer, who has agreed to lease some of his land for a solar installation, let’s consider the plight of another dairy farmer 35 miles northeast in Lunenburg, where the Eaton family owns 450 acres near the Connecticut River.

The family wanted to use three different sites on their farm for community solar projects, but two of the land parcels have been deemed wetlands and nixed by the state. This prompted farmer Conan Eaton to declare, “I can’t wiggle without someone telling me what to do.”

Down in Ryegate, it’s a different story.

Bruce Nelson has a herd of 500 Holsteins. The farm has been in his family since 1774, when William Nelson emigrated from Scotland. Nelson clearly has nothing against modern technology. He consults a laptop before inseminating cows. He’s agreed to devote about four acres of his 500-acre spread for the solar installation.

The land is near three-phase power lines, which allow the electricity to be fed into the grid.

"Once you get used to it, it's like power poles beside the side of the road. You don't see 'em. You drive by and you don't see 'em." - Bruce Nelson

“Nobody in their car can see it,” Nelson says. “I wanted that to be part of the process. I don’t think it’s an eyesore but I don’t think it ought to get shoved in anyone’s face."

Homeowners and town officials all over Vermont are objecting to solar installations on aesthetic grounds, but Bruce Nelson feels that eventually Vermonters will get used to the sight of solar panels.

“I can remember when we first got television here, and my grandfather was just devastated about putting an antenna up on the roof of the farmhouse. Just devastated,” he says. “Three weeks later, he said he didn’t even see it. Once you get used to it, it’s like power poles beside the side of the road. You don’t see ‘em. You drive by and you don’t see ‘em.”

Nelson has three different neighbors in Ryegate who will be able to see part of the solar installation when it’s put in. That’s expected to happen this summer. These are neighbors with which he has had a long history.

Bruce Nelson's farm is one of four Vermont members of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative who have agreed to solar projects installed by the Waterbury-based company Green Lantern.
Credit Jon Kalish for VPR

“I’ve sat at the kitchen table and talked it over with them. We’ve been respectful of them, and they’ve been respectful of us, and I’m sure in the back of their mind they’re thinking, ‘Oh, really?’ But they’re saying go for it,” he says. “And they’re the only three that are ever going to even know it’s there. I guess I tried to take the steps to make sure there wasn’t a problem here. And to be honest, if one of my neighbors had really objected I wouldn’t have done it.”  

One neighbor, Paul Keenan, wasn't happy with the project. But Keenan, a local selectman, supports renewable energy and says he also supports Nelson's right to place a solar array on his land. And Keenan says he believes the project's approval is a foregone conclusion with regulators. 

Nelson is one of four Vermont members of the Cabot Creamery Cooperative who have agreed to solar projects installed by the Waterbury-based company Green Lantern. The Cabot co-op will pay lower electric rates for the output for all four solar projects and get to boast that is a bit greener than it used to be.

Nelson expects to sign a 20-year lease with Green Lantern, which says that farmers will make more money leasing their land for solar generation than they would growing corn, hay or alfalfa. Bruce Nelson, who is 68 and thinking about his retirement, says the income will help make him and his wife Gail more secure.

“I’ve got to look out for Gail and I as to how we spend our last years,” he says. “And it’s not a lot of money, but it’s a monthly stipend and it’ll count. It’s enough to matter.”

"We're turning sunlight into a product that people can use and enjoy. Solar generation is just harvesting sunlight. So, I kind of think that fits into our business model."

Green Lantern plans to install 1,500 solar panels on Nelson’s land. The electricity generated should be enough to power about 110 homes. Nelson’s dairy cows produce more than 2,000 gallons of milk a day, which is enough to nourish many more households.

“Our family’s business has been harvesting sunlight through our animals, through our dairy cows, for 200 years,” he says. “We’re turning sunlight into a product that people can use and enjoy. Solar generation is just harvesting sunlight. So, I kind of think that fits into our business model.”

Bruce Nelson’s dairy farm uses a fair amount of electricity to cool both the milk and the cows, but he says that after investigating the cost of putting in a solar array on his own, he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t afford to do it.

So, even though he won’t be able to use the electricity produced by the solar panels on his farm, Nelson’s economic prospects will be somewhat brighter as a result of the project.