Funny Blue Stuff – Solar Power in Brattleboro


What’s all the blue stuff in this picture?

The picture is of the Bavarian town of Stadtsteinach in the Frankenwald, about a four-hour train ride from the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. The town is described by Thom Hartmann in his book Rebooting the American Dream.

Here’s how Thom describes it.

But during the past decade, as the train rolls along eastward from Frankfurt, I’ve seen a dramatic change in the scenery and the landscape. First there were just a few: purplish-blue reflections, almost like deep, still water, covering large parts of the south-facing roofs as I looked north out the window of the train. Solar panels.

Then, over the next few years, the purplish-blue chunks began to spread all over, so now when I travel that route it seems like about a third—and in many towns even more—of all the roofs are covered with photovoltaic solar panels.

Given that Germany is one of the cloudiest countries in Europe, right up there with England—the sun shines for only about a third of the year—it seems crazy that it would have more solar panels per capita than any other country in the world and that it employs more than 40,000 people in the solar power industry. But the Germans made it happen.

They figured out a way to use their existing banking and power systems to begin to shift from dependence on coal and nuclear power to solar. And all it took were pretty small tweaks in the grand scheme of things. A minor recalibration in the way money moves around in the energy and banking sectors has turned the country into a solar powerhouse. Within the past decade, Germany has gone from near zero to producing 8,000 megawatts (MW) of power from solar, the equivalent capacity of eight nuclear power plants in the United States.

We can and should do the same—begin to invest in solar and other renewable forms of energy in America. For far too long, we have been hooked on oil, and we continue to pay a terrible price for it economically, politically, militarily, and environmentally. We need to wean ourselves from it both for our own future survival and prosperity and because so often other countries of the world look to us as an example of what they can or should do.


In 1999 progressives in Germany passed the 100,000 Roof Program (Stromeinspeisungsgesetz), which mandated that banks had to provide low-interest 10-year loans to homeowners sufficient for them to put solar
panels on their houses. They then passed the Renewable Energies Law (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz) and in 2004 integrated the 100,000 Roofs Program into it. The Renewable Energies Law mandated that for the next 10 years the power company had to buy back power from those homeowners at a level substantially above the going rate so the homeowners’ income from the solar panel would equal their loan payment on the panel and would also represent the actual cost to the power company to generate that amount of power had it built a new nuclear reactor.

At the end of the 10 years, the power company gets to buy solar power from its customers at its regular rate, and it now has a new source of power without having to pay to maintain (and eventually dismantle) a nuclear reactor. In fact, while the reactor would have had a 20- to 30-year lifespan, the solar panels typically have a lifespan of 50 years.

For the homeowners it was a no-brainer: they were getting low-interest loans from banks for the solar panels, and the power companies were paying for the power generated by those panels at a rate high enough to pay off the loans. It was like getting solar power panels for free.

If anything, the government underestimated how rapidly Germans would embrace the program and thus how much more power would be produced and how quickly. By 2007, Germany accounted for about half of the entire world’s solar market. Just that one year, 2007, saw 1,300 MW of solar-generating capacity brought online
across the country.

You can read the whole chapter here:


Brattleboro has begun the march started in Germany more than 10 years ago. Let’s look at a few projects:

  • Solar Hill, on Western Avenue has started the ball rolling.
  • Here and there I see solar panels popping up on local homes.
  • The Brattleboro Town School Board has agreed to take part in a community solar project that will provide renewable solar energy for all of the district’s buildings.  (Reformer Friday March 29, 2013).
  • A short trip up route 5 shows several installations on local farms.
  • Winstanley’s project on Putney roar will “put us on the map” as visitors drive by on I-91.
  • Nick Ziter, of Sun-Farm Community Solar, is building a community project, which will be located behind Santa’s Land off of Route 5 in Putney. He wants to build a “solar garden” that can produce 150 kilowatts of energy. GMP Customers in Brattleboro can purchase a panel, or a few panels, and the energy is then fed in to the grid, with the solar power offsetting the home’s energy use.
  • Last Christmas, Chris Grotke published a series of pictures taken from the Brooks House tower. It showed all the flat roofs downtown, each of which is a potential solar farm. Here’s one of them:

    According to Chris, the Town plans to purchase solar power as part of a recent agreement to save money.

    The future is “bright”! Can we make Brattleboro the Stadtsteinach of Vermont?

  • Comments | 3

    • The New Energy Future

      Thanks for posting this tomaidh.
      This is the kind of story that gives me a positive outlook for the future. The German example is a good one and I think Brattleboro will follow them.

      At the same time I’d like to see VT explore a parallel low tech energy model – hydro, non photovoltaic panel solar, small scale wind. I don’t think we should be so taken with technologically advanced approaches that we spurn the old ones.

      • Low Tech Options

        Quote” “At the same time I’d like to see VT explore a parallel low tech energy model – hydro, non photovoltaic panel solar, small scale wind. I don’t think we should be so taken with technologically advanced approaches that we spurn the old ones”.

        Absolutely! Remember, if it doesn’t use carbon fuel, the cost of fuel will not go up with time. There are a few opportunities here in Bratt. For example, The Whetstone, behind the Shell Station (by the Deli) at Williams Street has a gorge with sufficient height for small scale hydro.
        The reservoir at Chestnut Hill could be used for pumped storage. There’s been some interest in local combined heat and power (Like at Brattleboro Kiln Dry) but nothing has been able to get off the ground. Possibly run-of-the-river (no dams) hydro in the West & Connecticut Rivers.

        Investors prefer large projects, but many small ones equal a big one!

    • Thanks so much for posting this

      I’d be on board. In fact, I have a blank area on my south-facing wall where I’d like to put a solar panel — as big as will reasonably fill the space, so the space is used well — and (perhaps) grid-tie it to offset my current and future electric bills. I understand solar panels are cheaper than ever, but I am overwhelmed thinking about how to make it happen on MY house for cheap.

      The financial piece is very complicated for me; I don’t have extra cash, and I can’t get a loan to do this. Would love to have someone local who is fired up and knowledgeable come by and advise me on how to do this on a shoestring budget. (Contact me if interested…)

      It needs to be easy, accessible, affordable for people.

      I’d love a program where the money was financed through the power company and the payment made via the credit applied to the homeowners bill, so the panels would literally pay for themselves over time. The loan would be transferrable to subsequent homeowners and always just paid via the electric bill’s tally. When the loan (perhaps with interest, in order to incent the investors) was paid off, the array would then belong to the homeowner free and clear, who would at that point reap the financial benefit. Has this been done elsewhere?

      You’d just sign up through the power company and they’d send a crew to do the installation. Could be a good investment vehicle for local investors who would be in it for the long haul but would get reliable long-term interest on their investment.

      Maintenance would be on the power company, but I assume even with the smart meters they will need to check them periodically (yearly?) for maintenance, so the solar panel(s) could be checked at the same time.

      If that sort of thing gets offered, sign me up!

      If every homeowner in Brattleboro with southern exposure put up at least one solar panel…

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