Solar Farming at Great Country Farms

Imagine this: your Tesla’s running low on power so before crossing the mountain you stop in Bluemont to top off your battery at the only public charging station between Leesburg and Winchester, which is attached to a building that began its life as a school for the children of Loudoun County’s recently-freed slaves, and which then spent 50 years as a US Post Office, and which is now the headquarters of Independent Solar Solutions; and while the photovoltaic panels on that building are polarizing the electrons in your battery pack, you ask yourself this question: how did Bluemont village become the nexus where historic preservation meets sustainable energy?

The answer, believe it or not, is soccer.

Germany Spain World Cup 2010

Germany lost to Spain in 2010’s World Cup.

“Jaime and I were at a wedding together,” Niko Eckart explained, “and he said, ‘You’re from Germany, right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘So you love soccer, right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘So do I! All my kids play,” and I said, ‘How many kids do you have?’ and he said, ‘Eight,’ and I said, ‘Eight? Let’s form a team and go to Germany and play!”

Two months later, they did exactly that.

Jamie is James Hogan, owner of HSP Direct, a direct mail marketing firm based in Herndon, and one of the principals at Independent Solar Solutions, an enterprise he wouldn’t have pursued a couple of years ago. “As an American, particularly living in this area, my idea of solar power came from the seventies and eighties,” Hogan said, “when solar power had a negative stigma because installations were ugly and didn’t work very well. When you saw it, your response was, like: ‘Oh. Solar.’”

obama-solar-panels-on-white-houseAs in, Oh, that’s too bad. I might have bought the place without that glaucous slab of wasted wishful thinking on the roof.

“But when we went to Germany and saw solar everywhere, and saw how good it looked, how normal it looked, my attitude about it changed.”

Independent Solar Solutions is based on the belief that a lot of people will react like Hogan did when they see that solar power isn’t as cumbersome as a ’78 Impala any more. “When we start installing modern solar panels here,” Hogan said, meaning places like western Loudoun County, “they’ll spread like a virus.”

Hogan and Eckart believe that one reason there isn’t much solar power in Loudoun County at the moment is that people don’t see it, so they don’t think about it — or if they do, they envision something incompatible with bucolic pastureland and historic architecture, which are the things that make a lot of people want to live in Western Loudoun.

ISS technicians working on a rural installation.

ISS technicians working on a rural installation.

But technology has changed a lot since Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House — and Ronald Reagan took them off, because the little bit of power they produced wasn’t worth the eyesore they created. Modern panels are slimmer, sleeker, dressier, and that blueish color you see in the eyes of old blind dogs is gone.

To show that photovoltaic panels can actually enhance the look of rural properties, Hogan had several installed on the roof of his barn, which is right on Snickersville Turnpike. He says people stop to admire them all the time.

“Our goal is to add five megawatts of power to the local grid in the next three years,” Eckart said. “That’s enough to power 3,600 houses.”

And the road to achieving that goal goes through Great Country Farms.

Independent Solar Solutions will begin installing 52 solar panels on the roof of the farm store next week, enough photovoltaic technology to generate 70% of the electricity required to heat, cool, and illuminate that large building, and to refrigerate its walk-in cooler. That’s a lot of power. And when they finish that job, they’ll put 36 panels on the roof of the Zurschmeide’s house.

power meter

At the same time, they’ll launch a homepage that will monitor the amount of electricity generated by the installation over the course of a year, a month, a day, or at any given moment, along with the total wattage generated since the installation came online. They’ll set up a video display inside the store so visitors can watch the farm’s electric meter spin in real time, and learn about contemporary solar power. “We see it as the latest attraction at Great Country Farms,” said Josh McConnell, the firm’s chief technician and CEO.

“Mark [Zurschmeide] has had solar power in mind from the start,” Eckart said. “When he built the main house twenty years ago, he purposely faced it toward the southwest, so it would be well situated for solar panels when the time came.”

Eckart and Hogan have floated a couple of other ideas past the Zurschmeides, such as installing a class-two charging station at the farm or at Bluemont Vineyard, so people can charge up while picking their CSA bonus or savoring a glass of wine. “Another possibility,” McConnell said, “is a cooperative solar farm, which could run more or less like the CSA program does. That way, even people who live in places where it’s impossible to install solar panels could enjoy solar power.”

To show people how historic buildings can be retrofitted for energy efficiency and solar power, Eckart and McConnell are remodeling the old Post Office at the intersection of Snickersville Turnpike and Railroad Street in Bluemont. The building will serve as the company’s headquarters and show room, with a full range of solar products on display. And, yes, there’ll be a charging station for your Tesla.

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