Greening Union Springs
Written by Sydney Cromwell for Southern Science
by Sydney Cromwell
January 16, 2024
When Herb Ferrette looks at his family’s 25-acre property in Union Springs, he sees green. Right now, it’s just green fields and forests, but in the future he envisions green energy, green jobs, green produce — and greenbacks.
Ferrette’s plans for the Little USA solar campus would bring together agriculture, workforce training and economic development, all powered by the sun.
THE IDEA MAN
Little USA has its roots in a reunion of the Jordan-Allen-Hall extended family about four years ago, Ferrette said. The family was discussing what to do with a property that was held in a family trust, and his idea for a solar campus rose to the top.
Ferrette said the conversation was pretty simple: “Great, we’ll do it — pass the macaroni and cheese.”
His family has deep roots in Union Springs, a town of 3,300 people in Bullock County. His great-grandfather started a grocery store in the town, and his grandmother was a leader in the school system. Many in his family were educators, he said.
“We have always been instrumental, as a family, in pushing change in the town of Union Springs,” Ferrette said.
The building that formerly housed the J.R. Jordan grocery store, which was founded by Ferrette’s great-grandfather. Photo courtesy of Herb Ferrette.
While he doesn’t live in Union Springs, Ferrette has been visiting family there since he was a child. Living in San Francisco, he said, exposed him to the recent and growing momentum around solar power as an industry.
In trying to decide what to do with the family property, Ferrette said financial success was a key factor that made his solar campus appealing.
“Solar is solvent. The sun is always going to be there,” he said.
Ferrette said the greatest potential for that success isn’t in the panels themselves, but in the job training opportunities that go with them.
“We’re not trying to be a utility,” he said.
Four years after that family reunion, Little USA is a nonprofit that is still working to find funding and get off the ground, Ferrette said.
The first phase of the solar campus, he said, will be an electric vehicle charging station and rest stop. Union Springs is a “drive-by community,” Ferrette said, and he wants to give drivers a reason to stop and spend time while waiting for their cars to charge.
“It creates a demand. No matter how small, every dime counts,” he said.
Union Springs, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Herb Ferrette.
Ferrette said he wants to target medium-sized commercial trucks, as companies like Amazon and UPS invest in electric vehicle fleets.
Union Springs is located at the intersection of state Highways 82 and 29, which Ferrette said have substantial commercial truck traffic, though they aren’t as significant as interstate routes. If truckers traveling from Montgomery or another hub can stop in Union Springs, “charge up, eat lunch, do their thing and then get back, they have a bigger route, they have more people they can service,” Ferrette said.
Personal electric vehicles would be “the icing rather than the cake” for the Little USA rest stop, he said. Mercedes is building electric vehicles at its plant in Tuscaloosa County and manufactures EV batteries at a facility in Bibb County.
The federal Department of Transportation has recently awarded millions of dollars in grants to expand the nation’s EV charging network.
“Electric cars are going to be happening,” Ferrette said.
Along with charging stations, Ferrette wants to build a produce market and a small restaurant to serve his family’s recipe for hot links, beans and rice, so visitors at the rest stop can have a hot meal rather than vending machine food. The restaurant could serve as a ghost kitchen for local caterers or pop-up shops, too, he said.
“It also becomes a way, again, for incubating another business in the city,” he said.
Ferrette estimates the cost to build the rest stop will be between $750,000 and $1.2 million. So far, Little USA has been mostly self-funded by Ferrette and Al Tabor, who heads the nonprofit’s finances, but they’re working on securing grant funding.
With rich soil underfoot and the warm sun shining down, Ferrette said the logical next step for Little USA will be to take advantage of both resources.
Ferrette plans to install fields of solar panels with rows of vegetable crops underneath, a system called “agrivoltaics” or “dual-use solar.”
“The idea of agrivoltaics just made sense, so we can harvest from the sun and the earth simultaneously,” he said.
Co-planting crops or pasturing animals in the same field with a solar array has grown in popularity globally, Ferrette said. It’s all about efficient use of available space.
“Agrivoltaics is only uncommon in the United States,” he said.
An agrivoltaics array being tested at the college of engineering at University of California – Davis. Photo courtesy of UC-Davis, via Wikimedia Commons.
The solar panel array would provide much or all of the power needed to operate the solar campus. The organic produce could be sold at the rest stop’s market or to clients like the county school system and area food banks, he said. Ferrette said he wants to include about an acre of heirloom crops, plus some community gardens.
“The solar will allow us to be off grid as much as we can, and the produce will be used as a revenue stream,” Ferrette said.
Ferrette said his goal is to make Little USA an extension campus, where farmers can learn about how to pair solar panels with traditional agriculture, and students from nearby schools can learn about green energy while they work in the gardens through the Little USA Sustainability Club.
Ferrette said he can’t do much about the solar power fees, but creating a training program at Little USA could encourage the growth of green energy jobs in the state.
It would also mean new career possibilities for Union Springs, which Ferrette said young people are leaving to look for opportunity elsewhere. Nearly 40% of Union Springs residents are at or near the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.
“They are our first-in students,” he said.
He wants to establish an endowment to keep tuition affordable.
“It’s a business, but at the same time, our mission is to serve the people that we’re in partnership with.”Herb Ferrette, Little USA
The curriculum that Ferrette plans to have at Little USA would give students NABCEP certification, a standard in the renewable energy field. He said students could learn about the variety of careers available to them, from solar panel installation and maintenance to design, engineering and hardware sales.
“It’s not just, ‘Come to the campus and watch the sun shine,’” Ferrette said.
Along with the agrivoltaics arrays, Ferrette wants to build a pavilion to host classes, with radiant-heat floors and solar panels or a living roof, “so we put back what we step on top of.”
Ferrette said he wants the Little USA program to help students incubate their own businesses or connect with existing ones to find jobs once they’re certified.
“You show up, you learn, you get it, you go,” he said.
THE BIG VISION
As he looks further into the potential future of Little USA, Ferrette’s ambitions are all about interconnectivity and efficiency.
The trees that are cut down to develop the property will be reused to build playgrounds for the rest stop, or as pellets for cooking in the restaurant. Produce that can’t be picked and sold will go into worm composting, to enrich the soil for future crops.
“Where is the waste going to go? Where can it be repurposed?” Ferrette said.
The property includes about 3 acres of wetlands, which can’t be built on. Instead, he wants to create trails and signs to encourage people to explore the area.
“Because we need a destination, this wetland becomes the draw, with hiking paths,” he said.
Ferrette envisions a vertical greenhouse with a restaurant inside, so the solar campus can produce food year-round and put it on a plate only a few feet away from where it grew. He wants to add beehives and a hydroponics system with fish living inside, which create nutrients for the plants and can then be served at the restaurant.
The proposed design for the completed Little USA solar campus. Rendering courtesy of Herb Ferrette.
He wants to build an event center using containers and prefabricated architecture, to display sustainable building methods. Ferrette said he also intends to build tiny homes for the eventual permanent staff to live on campus, and he wants to hire veterans to fill many of those roles.
“It’s a business, but at the same time, our mission is to serve the people that we’re in partnership with,” he said. “… This is the big vision, but clearly you see how we’re trying to make everything work with itself.”
Ferrette said he has a good portion of the planning and engineering work done for the first two phases of Little USA, the charging station and the agrivoltaics project. The big hurdle is, of course, funding it.
“Show me the money, I can do it tomorrow. We have plans, we’re ready,” he said.
If the solar campus becomes a reality, Ferrette said he would like it to serve as a model that people can repeat in their own towns.
“Through my leading by example, other people see what you do, and hopefully people who do like it become part of your family,” he said.
Visit littleusa.solar to learn more about the plans for Little USA solar campus.