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GMP unveils microgrid solar project

Published: Mar. 10, 2021 at 5:06 PM EST
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PANTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Rural Vermont towns are no stranger to power outages. Storms can leave residents in the dark, sometimes for days. But the state’s largest utility is hoping to change that with a first-of-its-kind solar “microgrid” program that will go online this spring.

Welcome to Panton. The rural Addison County town of 677 people -- and according to their website -- 3,518 cows and 74,239 chipmunks (2020 was a banner year.) But it’s also a town with the latest innovation from Green Mountain Power.

Forty acres of solar panels track the sun’s movement, according to Josh Castonguay, GMP’s vice president and chief innovation officer. “The panels can actually articulate throughout the day as the sun moves over. The other great thing is that if there’s snow on them, they can actually dump the snow off,” he said.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: So how large is this solar grid here?

Josh Castonguay: This solar here is just under five megawatts of power.

GMP is testing a first-of-its-kind pilot program. The goal -- at least for one section of town -- is that the lights will never go off.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What would they notice then during a power outage?

Josh Castonguay: Ideally, very little. There’s a potential that there will be a very small blink, if that.

He says they’ll be leveraging the power produced by the solar panels and stored in rows of massive Tesla batteries to create a “microgrid,” a larger version of their in-home battery backup technology. “The idea is something I’ve been thinking about for years,” Castonguay said. “Basically, an emergency backup source right here in Panton.”

During a storm that causes an outage, customers would normally be in the dark until GMP crews arrived to fix it. But with the microgrid, backup power from the solar panels and batteries flows to keep the lights on. The exception would be when the actual line to a home is damaged.

“We were very excited about it,” said Panton Selectboard Chair Howard Hall.

GMP says that power could potentially be stretched for days if needed. But Hall says power outages in Panton aren’t that common, so the biggest benefit to their community is peace of mind. “What the major advantage is for us, is protection of our two major buildings -- our town garage and also our town hall here. So, we can have operation uninterrupted from any kind of power problem,” he said.

The 50 customers who live on the stretch between the town hall and the town garage will be covered by this to start. GMP says they plan to expand to another 900 in the future. GMP says they have five other solar arrays this size in Vermont -- three with battery storage already -- that could be next. “We can see this rolling out to more solar systems around the state,” Castonguay said.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: How does it feel to be the first community to get this sort of tech?

Howard Hall: You know, it’s like the little town that could, you know? It is a great benefit and you know, for a little town of 677 people, we sure have a lot of benefits and nice things going for our town.

GMP says the benefits aren’t just resiliency, but that it will also cut costs. That’s because the power stored in the batteries during the day can be tapped to use during peak times in the evening to reduce costs for everyone. The idea is that the microgrid project -- which cost roughly $700,000 -- will eventually pay for itself

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