On November 17, The Abbey Group co-owners David and Sherry Underwood and DeWayne Howell of Husky Injection Molding Systems break ground on a 25-unit solar installation on the Underwoods’ land in Sheldon. Husky, a Milton company, will purchase all of the electricity it produces from Green Mountain Power. (Photo courtesy of the Abbey Group)
A new partnership between a Franklin and Chittenden county business adds to the growing renewable energy landscape in northwestern Vermont.
The Underwood family, proprietors of the Abbey Group food service, is working with AllEarth Renewables to install a 25-unit solar “garden,” as co-owner Sherry Underwood calls it, that will help power Husky Injection Molding in Milton.
When work is finished by December 31, the photovoltaic panels, AllEarth’s AllSun Tracker Series 24, will comprise about three acres of the Underwoods’ Sheldon backyard, just south on VT 105 of the Abbey Restaurant.
A long-term agreement with Abbey says the Milton plant will purchase all the expected 217,000 annual kilowatt hours the installation produces. The parties declined to share the details of the non-disclosure agreement.
The contract is made possible through Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility company, by a process called group net metering. The electricity produced is fed back to the grid, and Husky’s electricity bills will break out the percentage of usage from the renewable source, said DeWayne Howell, Husky’s engineering and maintenance team leader, who worked with the Underwoods.
Howell said the solar power will only cover about 7 percent of Husky’s electricity needs, and the company will continue to burn fossil fuels. The project doesn’t represent a substantial cost savings for the plant, either. While Vermont statute offers a 6-cent credit per kWh for most solar energy consumers, the credits for this project will be shared between Husky and the Underwoods, Abbey Group co-owner David Underwood said.
The Underwoods are funding the installation, he said, and though he declined to divulge the cost, he estimates the project has a 10-year return on investment. The businessman said the project is driven by passion, not money. Offering some of their 40 acres was inspired by renewable ventures undertaken by other family members.
Just down VT 105, Sherry’s brother, Thomas Kane, and his wife, Nancy, operate Kane’s Cow Power. Also through GMP, the system powers generators with methane gas converted from manure. Kane owns 900 cattle and has run the Sheldon dairy farm for 40 years; he has produced cow power since 2011, he said.
The Underwoods’ oldest daughter, Shannon Harrison, the Abbey Group’s vice president of finance, is married to Kevin Harrison, whose family co-owns Georgia Mountain Community Wind, among other operations.
The renewable buzz made the Underwoods consider how their business ventures impact the environment, David Underwood said. Many of the Abbey’s 80 clients participate in the company’s recycling and composting programs, including Georgia Elementary and Middle School.
“It planted the seed. We needed to step back, look where we’re heading, [and we decided] we need to do more in this area,” Sherry Underwood said.
They selected Husky as the purchaser, or “offtaker” in energy parlance, because of its physical proximity to the Harrison ventures. The Harrisons have no stake in Husky.
Husky was coincidentally already in talks with AllEarth Renewables about a potential installation on its grounds, Howell said. The company decided it wasn’t the time to make their own capital investment but learned the Underwoods sought a buyer.
“It lined up perfectly with us: We can support a renewable energy project in a relatively local [area],” Howell said.
Though neither party expects to profit from the project, enabling Husky to use some renewable electricity is a plus in their minds. The partnership fits into the state’s energy goals, which call for 90 percent of the state’s energy needs be met with renewable resources by 2050.
“It is helping Vermont move forward,” Howell said.
This type of partnership benefits all GMP customers, spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said. Solar systems generate the most power during the summer, which, in the New England market, is when power is most expensive due to high demand.
“There is big benefit to our overall system: We’re not buying expensive power [and we’re] reducing the power load,” Schnure said.
The Underwoods feel they are just doing their part and are happy to invest in the future of their family business, which will someday be owned by daughters Shannon, Jennifer and Abbey. They’re happy to instill a sense of sustainability in their six grandchildren, too.
“Everybody wants to get out of fossil fuels for all the right reasons,” David Underwood said. “The collaboration of all these projects is very important to do that. It’s gotta be done.”