BRATTLEBORO—A large-scale — and specially legislated — solar array atop Brattleboro’s old landfill is supposed to bring big financial benefits to 19 towns.
But progress on the 5-megawatt project has stalled, and landowner Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD) is talking with solar companies to formulate a “plan B” if current developer Pristine Sun defaults on meeting contractual milestones.
District officials say they remain optimistic that the solar array will become reality, and they’re hopeful that San Francisco-based Pristine can pull it off. But both the developer and the district face upcoming deadlines to get the project moving again.
“We have not seen any progress except for their filing for a [power grid] interconnection,” said WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer. “This is very concerning, because this is a project that has an economic value of over $20 million to our member towns over 20 years.”
Pristine Sun Chief Executive Officer Troy Helming acknowledged the delays and said his company is just now emerging from a lengthy legal dispute that had left it unable to raise money for development.
“We’re going to do our level best to meet all those milestones [in Brattleboro],” Helming said. “We’ve been transparent with the people at the solid waste district and have provided open lines of communication.”
WSWMD provides recycling and waste-management services and is supported by 19 member towns. Additionally, the district maintains a closed, capped landfill off Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro.
The district has faced a cash crunch in recent years, partly due to a declining market for reselling recyclables. So officials believe one way to save money is development of a solar array via Vermont’s net metering law, which allows utility customers to receive electric-bill credits for generating power via smaller-scale, renewable-energy systems.
As the solar array is now designed, officials project that a typical WSWMD member town’s electric savings would start at 38 percent of its power bill in the first year and then could climb to 61 percent in the final year of a 20-year power-purchase agreement.
Under normal circumstances, a 5-megawatt array like the one proposed by Windham Solid Waste would be too large to be a net-metered project. But a state energy law approved in 2014 included a provision allowing a net-metered array generating up to 5 megawatts to be built “on a closed landfill in Windham County.”
District officials have pursued the complex landfill solar project cautiously, hiring an Ohio company to help find the right developer. After months of work, Windham Solid Waste inked a long-term deal with Pristine Sun last summer.
The deal calls for no significant up-front investment by the district, as Pristine must fund development of the array. But officials now say work hasn’t progressed as had been promised.
“We still have an existing lease with Pristine Sun,” Spencer said. “But we have been concerned that Pristine is not meeting certain milestones that are spelled out in their contract with us.”
Examples of unfinished work, Spencer said, include a survey of the property to allow for a final design; an interconnection analysis with Green Mountain Power; and power-purchase agreements with member towns.
This work, officials say, was supposed to be done by the one-year anniversary of the deal with Pristine Sun. That anniversary is in late July.
“These are contractual milestones that probably will cost on the order of $300,000 for the developer and take significant time,” Spencer said.
WSWMD has a deadline of its own to meet: The special provision in state law that allows this solar project to qualify as net-metered also says the developer must apply for a state certificate of public good before Jan. 1, 2017.
Helming said he’s aware of that deadline as well as the schedule set forth in his company’s contract with Windham Solid Waste. But he said Pristine’s development work has been significantly hampered by a failed joint venture with a former partner company.
Pristine signed a settlement agreement with that partner earlier this week, Helming said. “It was a very positive outcome for Pristine Sun, but it cost us almost a year of development because of not being able to raise capital,” he said.
Helming said Pristine now has a smaller staff, but “we have enough people to develop the project in Vermont. We’re very excited.”
He couldn’t say for sure, however, whether the company still can adhere to the schedule called for in Pristine’s contract. Helming said one option might be to ask the district for more time if it doesn’t appear those deadlines can be met.
“We have to analyze the risk-return profile of investing a lot of money [at Windham Solid Waste] in the next few weeks,” he said.
Spencer and Lou Bruso, chair of the WSWMD Board of Supervisors, say they have communicated their concerns to Helming.
“They have some financial difficulties that they appear to be coming out of,” Bruso said. “The question then becomes, just because they’re getting the company back on track, does that mean they’re going to get the project back on track?”
Bruso said he’s still “mildly optimistic” about Pristine’s development plans, though “not optimistic enough to assume that they’re going to be able to do it.”
That is why the district’s Executive Board has been holding closed-door contractual talks with other solar companies that have approached WSWMD about the landfill opportunity. Spencer said it appears that three companies are in the mix, and the Executive Board is expected to soon make a recommendation to the full board on entering into negotiations with a possible alternate contractor.
Spencer said the plan is to “have a lease ready to execute by the end of July” if Pristine doesn’t come through.
“We’re hoping Pristine Sun is still on track,” Spencer said. “They have a very attractive proposal, and we’re hanging in there with them.”