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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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A pipe for methane gas collection at Brattleboro’s closed and capped landfill, where Windham Solid Waste Management District is pursuing development of a 5 megawatt solar array.

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Big savings seen for 5MW solar farm at WSWMD landfill

Projections show that participating towns may be able to cut their electric bills by more than half

BRATTLEBORO—A solar array proposed for Brattleboro’s closed landfill — an installation that would be Vermont’s largest by current standards — could lead to a big payoff for Windham County municipalities.

Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD) officials have been working for years to develop an array at the Old Ferry Road landfill, and 2014 state legislation opened the door for a 5 megawatt, net-metered installation here.

Now, a few months after choosing a developer for the job, officials say estimates show that a typical town signing on to the project could see annual electric-bill savings of more than 60 percent by the end of a 20-year power-purchase agreement.

Over the life of those agreements, “the [total] net value to our member communities from this deal is in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Windham Solid Waste Executive Director Bob Spencer.

“That’s why we’ve worked hard to maintain this project and make sure that it happens, because it’s a very good deal,” Spencer said.

WSWMD, supported by 19 member towns, provides recycling and waste-disposal services. The district also must maintain a closed and capped 30-acre landfill that operated until the mid-1990s.

In part because of a fluctuating market for recyclables, WSWMD has had budget troubles in recent years. Member towns pay an annual assessment, but officials also have been searching for new forms of revenue.

Enter solar, an industry that’s booming in Vermont due to a combination of federal and state financial incentives as well as the state’s net-metering law, which allows a utility customer — or group of customers — to receive electric-bill credits for generating power via small-scale, renewable energy systems.

Just a few years ago, a 5 megawatt solar project would have been far too big to qualify as a net-metered project. But last year’s expanded net-metering law contained language — added at the behest of then-Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith — allowing a solar array producing up to 5 megawatts of power to be constructed “on a closed landfill in Windham County and treated as a net-metering system.”

There have been controversial proposals to build arrays producing up to 20 megawatts in Vermont. But at this point, a 5 megawatt photovoltaic facility would be more than twice the size of any operating array in the state.

It’s a complex job to plan such a large array atop a landfill, and Windham Solid Waste has solicited help with the project. The district worked with Ohio-based Hull & Associates Inc. to develop a request for development proposals and to sort through the resulting applications.

This past summer, district officials chose San Francisco-based Pristine Sun to develop the project. Company representatives visited a few weeks ago, and engineering and design work is ongoing.

“They are going to be doing a topographical survey of the landfill very soon, which they’ll need to do their design,” Spencer said.

Pristine Sun has filed for an interconnection with Green Mountain Power, Spencer said, but has not yet submitted an application for a state certificate of public good. The idea is to have the array up and running in about a year to ensure that the project benefits from a critical federal tax credit.

“The system must be generating electricity by the end of 2016,” Spencer said. “Many projects are racing that deadline. But we’ve been told that where we’re at [is on schedule].”

Windham Solid Waste has been preparing the site for development. That work has ranged from filling in settled areas to hiring an exterminator to remove woodchucks.

“We’ve been doing a fair amount of work on the landfill in order to turn it over in very good condition,” Spencer said.

Officials also must factor in WSWMD’s ongoing obligation to monitor methane gas generated by the landfill. That gas is used to produce electricity at the site.

“The challenge has been to integrate the landfill gas system, which is under a different lease, with the solar lease,” Spencer said.

As logistical work continues, financial calculations are showing that the array could be even more beneficial to the district than officials initially had thought. While the numbers are not final and he has not yet discussed town-by-town breakdowns with the district’s members, Spencer said utility savings are “very significant.”

Each town’s electric-rate structure varies significantly. But according to Brattleboro-based Integrated Solar, which has participated in the landfill project as a development consultant, a typical town’s electric savings would start at 38 percent of its power bill in the first year and then would climb all the way to 61 percent in year 20 of a WSWMD power-purchase agreement.

The projected savings for the landfill project are even higher than those associated with other solar projects due to the economies of scale associated with such a large, net-metered array, officials said.

The WSWMD’s member towns can choose to opt in or out of the solar array. Among those that decide to participate, power-purchase agreements must be standardized.

“That is currently being reviewed by some towns as a draft,” Spencer said. “We hope to have the final form of that next month.”

The array will generate far more power than the district’s member towns can take, so Windham Solid Waste administrators are reaching out to other entities such as school districts to find willing partners. Officials also have talked to Brattleboro Housing Partnerships, Spencer said.

“We’re very confident now that the 5 megawatts will be committed to from Windham County towns and school districts,” Spencer said. “And if not, we’re allowed to reach out to entities beyond Windham County.”

There also are direct financial benefits for WSWMD. Pristine will pay $102,000 annually to lease the land, though Spencer noted that “we will not be paid anything until there’s power being generated.”

The district itself will purchase power from the solar array, though there is not yet a firm estimate for the organization’s utility savings, Spencer said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #330 (Wednesday, November 4, 2015). This story appeared on page B3.

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