Sunnyside goes solar

By Alex Sharp VIII/Rappahannock News
Eddie Fletcher of E. Fletcher Construction and Nick Lapham, owner of The Farm at Sunnyside, in front of some of the 175 solar panels being installed on the property. By Alex Sharp VIII/Rappahannock News

Local farm to achieve energy sustainability through 175 solar panels


Sustainability is the goal. Sustainability of food and wildlife, of labor, of energy.

Nick Lapham stepped out of the main farm house at The Farm at Sunnyside, at the edge of the Park boundary, with The Peak towering in the sunlight behind, and slid on sunglasses as he climbed into a Kubota 4×4 with project manager and general consultant Eddie Fletcher. The two cruised down the flat, snaking gravel Sunnyside Road, the Lapham family farm dog Abby, adopted from RAWL eight years ago, prancing and flitting along beside.

The peepers in the vernal pool to our right pulsed, as the Kubota turned left past an old open-topped silo that holds barn owls, and veered left again into the farm center, two big barns, a greenhouse and a bunkhouse. Long rows of brackets are set on the metal spines of the two southernmost facing roof sections of the barns, which will hold a total of 175, 280-watt solar panels in rows of three. Ten panels were already in place Tuesday, with a crew of three men setting the next ones, when Fletcher and Lapham approached to check on their progress.

Once the Sustainable Technology Institute crew out of Richmond finishes the 10-day installation, the sun’s power will generate around 49,000 watts of electricity, enough to cover the farm’s entire energy use, which includes a large cooling system for apple storage, a bunkhouse for five seasonal harvest employees, and six farm houses for Sunnyside’s full-time employees. Legislation that passed in the Virginia General Assembly last year now allows farm net metering, which means that each residence on the farm does not need its own solar panels, and can pull from the barn panels.

“The goal is to offset, ultimately, the entire electricity use across the entire farm,” Lapham said, noting that it’s a huge benefit to be able to house his employees on the property, because of the shortage of reasonably priced housing in the county. “And everybody who works for us lives on the property. So all of the houses, the coolers, the farm center, everything we do electric wise, the goal is basically a net zero.”  

The implementation of the solar system does not mean that The Farm at Sunnyside is “off the grid,” however. Power generated by the solar panels goes back into Rappahannock Electric’s main grid system, and is credited back to the farm. If the farm consumes less than the power generated by the panels, the electric company pays wholesale rate for the extra energy. Sunnyside will also receive a 30 percent tax credit for going solar. Plus they’ll gain what’s referred to as RECs, renewable energy certificates that are sold on the open market.

“One of the real game changers here, to credit, was the agricultural net metering that was passed in I believe May of 2015 by the Virginia General Assembly. It was actually implemented in September,” Fletcher said, peering up the roof at the crew in fleeting glances. “And that’s really, in several terms it allows agricultural businesses that qualify to sort of group things together; before that we would’ve had to put a small solar system on each individual building, and that’s really not necessarily feasible . . . So what happens here is you literally take 19 electric meters on a property like this, and it all goes into one account. And then through the net metering process, basically through the end of the year, end of the six-month period, you sort of have a checking of tallies: This is how much you produced.”

A farm evolves

In previous ownership, Sunnyside Farm was predominantly cattle and apple land, rows of orchard stretching up steep slopes toward the mountain, cows grazing in pastures and drinking from the streams. But Lapham, a former Clinton Administration climate change advisor and negotiator at the Kyoto Climate Change Conference, approaches managing his farm with a mind for promoting biodiversity of wildlife.

“The only livestock we have are laying chickens. We don’t have any cattle, we don’t have any sheep, we don’t have any pigs. On the food side, we’re primarily a vegetable and fruit operation,” he said. “So we grow almost 50 different varieties of certified organic vegetables. All the vegetables we grow are certified organic. And we do that though, next with an eye toward producing healthy, nutritious food and the like, but really with an eye toward the environmental aspects of improving the quality of our soil, and farming in a way that is hopefully not negative, and ideally a benefit to biodiversity.

“And everything we don’t manage for food, we’re actively managing for biodiversity and beneficial ecosystem services — like the meadows, like our riparian zones,” Lapham continued. “Basically, we’re trying to think about: How do we look at as many ways as possible to proactively manage the property for the benefit of wildlife and ecosystem services? Whether it’s species that are threatened or are in trouble in our range, by providing artificial nesting habitat, like for barn owls and American kestrals, bluebirds, tree swallows and screech owls . . . So you get a double benefit there: You get a benefit of providing artificial nesting habitat for species that are in trouble at least in this part of their range, but you also get the benefit of natural pest control, as those are species that prey on some of the pests that cause problems on the farm: small rodents, insects, et cetera.”

Investing in solar

Eddie Fletcher, master craftsman and owner of E. Fletcher Construction, has lived in the county since 1998, and has worked with Lapham for the 10 years he has owned the 440-acre Farm at Sunnyside. He lives in a cabin in the center of the farm with his wife, plein-air oil painter Nora, and two sons, 8 and 1 years old. It was through taking Zak Dowell’s classes on sustainable energy technologies at Lord Fairfax Community College nine years ago that Fletcher started down the path toward acquiring solar power at the farm

“In a financial investment, people sort of gravitate to a measure, if you will: Does it have a five-year payback, return on your investment?” Fletcher said. “And this we would say is still not at five years, but we really believe that it’s at about seven. We believe that if it works well, we will pay for the system in seven to seven and a half years. And we’re talking about panels in a system that has a 30-year warranty. So if the equation works well, we can have 23 clean years, at least, of producing our own energy.”

Lapham hopes solar power catches on.

“Beyond just the goal of being able to offset our energy use, and being proud of that, I think the times we’re living in — to be able to do something really tangible, here, on our property, to reduce our carbon footprint, is meaningful and important to me,” Lapham said. “And it’s not an insignificant reason why I wanted to do this, but as Eddie said, we wanted to wait until it made good sense to do it. We wanted all the stars aligned, and with this agricultural net metering provision, that was kind of the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, to allow us to do it in a way where we had a reasonable return on investment.”

‘A very meaningful place’

Lapham said the farm’s goal is to produce two products: To produce food, and to produce biodiversity and ecosystem assistance.

“People think that means you just kind of sit back and let nature take its course. It doesn’t mean that,” he said. “It means proactively going out and managing your land . . . If you just let it go, you’re going to get an ecosystem full of invasive species, and actually you’re not going to get the kind of diversity and the kind of services you can get by actively managing and thinking ‘Ok, how can we maximize our environmental benefits here?’ So producing wildlife, producing food, and I would also add to that, producing energy — and that’s a nice third part of the wheel for us.”

This September will mark the Lapham’s 10th year owning Sunnyside.

“It’s become a very meaningful place for me and for my family [wife Gardiner, 10-year-old son and six-year old twins], and we are committed to this place,” Lapham said, noting that he’s frequented Rappahannock County since age two, and recalls sleeping in a lean-to on the other Lapham farm, down Crest Hill Road in Flint Hill. “We have largely south-facing slopes that go up to the wilderness area of the [Shenandoah] National Park, which is largely what I find most compelling: We sit right at that intersection between a wild space and a more cultivated landscape, and that’s part of the tension that makes the property so exciting and powerful.”

The power to the solar system at The Farm at Sunnyside will be switched on next week.