Power by sun and water
Renewables offer new formula on farm operations
Operated by Ryan and Rachel Yoder, on land leased from the neighboring Smokey House Center, Yoder Farm primarily produces organic popcorn, dry beans, produce, vinegar, and poultry for sale in local markets. Having recently debuted an innovated hydro-power system that utilizes the lands natural resources, Yoder ultimately hopes to produce all of the energy needed for the farm on site.
"The value of what we're currently generating is going to be about $1,400 a year," explained Ryan Yoder. "The idea is that our farm business can be entirely carbon negative if we're using as much renewable energy as possible and simultaneously sequestering carbon."
The first phase of that plan was completed last August, when a 600W solar array was successfully installed by Chittenden's FoxFire Energy. Now the new hydro-electric generator, initially prompted by a faltering water line, is anticipated to generate about two-thirds of Yoder's annual energy consumption.
Utilizing ample overflow from the farm's spring, a tributary of the Mill Brook, the system harnesses the existing water pressure to generate energy.
"I first visited the spring with Ryan in about 2011 and was surprised at the quantity of water overflowing at the cistern," said Bob Yoder, Ryan's father and the engineer who designed and installed the hydro-electric generator, in his project report. "Having just climbed the hill to get to the spring I was well aware of the elevation difference and that it represented a small but significant hydropower opportunity."
"The spring originally had a 60 gallon a minute overflow that was not being utilized, and all that was coming down the hill was about 4 gallons a minute — which is not a lot relative to what was potentially available," added Ryan. "The drop is about 350 feet, so that's significant enough to generate quite a bit of power."
The farm will continue to utilize the water source for irrigation as well, with multiple water delivery points throughout the property. The electric energy flow is transported via a buried cable to a shed adjoining the solar array, where it connects to the energy meter of the Green Mountain Power grid. Water is also delivered to a neighboring residence through the system.
With contributions from the Smokey House Center and Yoder Consulting LLC, as well as an agreement with Green Mountain Power, Yoder says that both the solar and hydro energy projects rang in under the estimated cost. Due to the variability of renewable energy production, however, it will be several years before the farm can determine just how close they've come to meeting their "net-neutral goal." While the Yoder Farm spring has historically proven consistent in terms of water flow, cloud conditions and the position of the sun (as the farm has a fixed solar array) can result in varying solar energy production between days and seasons.
Still, both Yoder and the Smokey House Center see the endeavor as a step in the right direction — though there's still a long road ahead.
"This energy project is a great example of the kinds of partnerships that are possible here," said Jesse Pyles, executive director of the Smokey House Center. "With our land and infrastructure base, the hard work of these farm families, and our joint connections to other agencies and institutions, we can do things together that we might not be able to do on our own."
"We're also actively planting a lot of trees to build the soil carbon, which can also be stored in the biomass of the trees," Yoder said, articulating the carbon sequestering aspect of his net-neutral plan. "Our next step will be to conduct an energy audit, and find out how much fossil fuel we're still burning between tractors and some heating oil, in order to mitigate that. It's part of our grandiose plan to try and do the right thing."
That plan isn't without obstacles, however, as Yoder says state regulations promoting conservation proved challenging in the pursuit of hydro-generated energy.
"It would be great if there was more capacity in Vermont to make these things happen, so we could see more systems like this," Yoder added. "Unfortunately there's a lot of well-intentioned hurdles that are in the way of doing hydroelectric projects. You have to break some eggs to make the omelette, so let's do that in an intentional and intelligent way."
From the farmer's point of view, that perspective-shift from "micro to macro" needs to occur sooner rather than later — both in Vermont and on a larger scale.
"I would like to live in a world where the state actively promotes these kind of projects rather than getting in the way of people who are trying to do the right thing," he explained. "If we don't as a species utterly change how we live, even at the cost or alteration of certain ecosystem functions that currently exist, the ecosystems that we depend on are going away. When they do, we go away too."
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