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Vermont National Guard seeks solar power

Developers propose a 1.8 megawatt solar project adjacent to National Guard armory in Westminster

WESTMINSTER—Developers are proposing Windham County’s second-largest solar array, and the Vermont Army National Guard appears to be an enthusiastic partner in the project.

The state Public Service Board will consider an application filed Feb. 16 for a 1.8 megawatt, net-metered solar project to be situated on more than 16 acres of land in Westminster between Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River.

The array would stand on property adjacent to the Guard’s armory and shooting range, and documents show that the military organization would be sole beneficiary of the array’s net-metering credits.

“The National Guard is under a mandate to procure electricity from renewable sources, and this project will enable the National Guard to fulfill its mandate,” the application says.

Available tax incentives and a favorable regulatory environment have fueled a solar boom in Vermont. The state’s net-metering law allows a utility customer or group of customers to receive electric bill credits for participating in power generation via small-scale, renewable energy systems.

There are statutory limits to net metering, and Green Mountain Power has bumped up against that limit. The utility is seeking to raise its net-metering capacity but has not yet received state permission to do so.

But the proposed Westminster project should not be affected by that capacity debate, no matter its outcome, said Peter Thurrell, president of Dummerston-based solar installer Soveren Inc.

That’s because Thurrell says the project would fall under a specific provision of Vermont’s net-metering law.

That section allows for a net-metered project to generate up to 2.2 megawatts of power as long as the electricity is “consumed primarily by the Military Department ... or the National Guard.”

Most net-metered projects cannot be larger than 500 kilowatts.

The same section says that such a project doesn’t count toward a utility’s capacity limits for net-metered power. Therefore, Thurrell believes that “this project is exempted from the net-metering cap by legislation.”

Net-metering issues aside, the Public Service Board will consider a host of other factors including environmental and aesthetic impacts before deciding whether to issue a certificate of public good for the Westminster array.

Documents filed in support of the project disclose the proposed array’s ownership and operation and claim it will have limited impact on the area:

• The application was filed by Spencer-TGC Westminster LLC, based in Providence, R.I. But Thurrell’s testimony submitted to the Public Service Board says that, while Spencer-TGC will own the array, Soveren Inc. “is the installer for this project and will operate and manage the project after completion.”

• The land in question is described as a former gravel pit that has been permitted for use as an industrial business park. Thurrell’s testimony notes that another lot in that park already hosts a 500 kilowatt solar array, though that site will be separated by a fence and will have separate access routes.

• Access to the site of the 1.8 megawatt array would be via Sand Hill Road and Armory Lane as well as a private gravel road.

• Thurrell said utility upgrades already have been made at the site to accommodate a large array.

• In reference to aesthetic concerns, Thurrell contends in his written testimony that “locating a solar array of this size in a commercial/industrial business park will reduce the aesthetic impacts of the project by placing the array in an area of nonresidential uses.”

• He also invokes a public safety argument: “The proposed array is on land adjacent to the firing range of the Vermont Army National Guard,” Thurrell’s testimony says. “Having solar panels on that land significantly reduces the chance of accidental injury or death to humans, who might otherwise occupy the land if it were developed for other industrial uses.”

• If Spencer-TGC receives a certificate of public good, construction of the solar array would take four to six months, documents say. Heavy equipment would be needed only in the first month, according to Thurrell.

• Spencer-TGC says it has agreements to purchase the land, which is privately owned. The section of state law that serves as the basis for this project appears to mandate that the property hosting the array be owned by the military, but filings show that officials are considering whether the Military Department can lease—rather than purchase—the parcel from Spencer-TGC.

No matter the ownership structure, the idea is that the solar developer will “enter into a net metering credit purchase agreement with the department through which the Guard will acquire all of the net metering credits and have the opportunity to acquire the renewable energy credits,” according to testimony filed by John Patry, military operations manager in the state Military Department.

“The department is currently hopeful that such an agreement can be reached,” Patry said.

The Vermont Guard is no stranger to solar power: A 1.45 megawatt array completed in 2011 benefits the Air National Guard’s base in South Burlington.

In terms of power output, the Westminster array would be the second-largest such facility in Windham County. In the fall of 2014, a 2 megawatt solar site was completed on land in Brattleboro owned by Winstanley Enterprises along I-91 near Exit 3.

A much larger solar project is in the works, as Windham Solid Waste Management District is pursuing development of an array with a capacity of up to 5 megawatts on Brattleboro’s closed, capped landfill. That also would be a net-metered project under a special provision in the state law.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #349 (Wednesday, March 23, 2016). This story appeared on page C4.

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