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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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National Guard armory to harness solar power

WESTMINSTER—The Vermont National Guard is going solar.

The state Public Service Board has approved construction of a 1.8-megawatt solar array on land adjacent to the Guard’s armory in Westminster, ruling that the nearly 17-acre project’s benefits will outweigh its impacts.

Via special state statutory language, the solar installation will qualify as net-metered. That means the Guard can take full and exclusive advantage of utility bill savings and renewable energy credits created by the array.

“The electricity produced by the project will meet approximately 71 percent of the Vermont Army National Guard’s annual electricity consumption needs,” the Public Service Board wrote in granting a certificate of public good for the array on July 22.

The Westminster array is the second-largest photovoltaic installation to be permitted by the state in Windham County, ranking only behind a slightly larger solar project operating in Brattleboro near Exit 3 of Interstate 91.

Rhode Island-based Spencer-TGC Westminster LLC applied for the Westminster project permit earlier this year. But Dummerston-based Soveren Inc. is listed as the developer and installer and is expected to manage the project upon completion.

Seeking energy credits

In testimony filed with the Public Service Board in January, John Patry, the Guard’s military operations manager, said the state Military Department “wishes to procure electricity from renewable sources and acquire renewable energy credits.”

The Spencer/Soveren plan will make that happen, with some help from a specific provision in the state’s net-metering law. That law allows a utility customer or group of customers to receive utility bill credits for participating in renewable energy generation projects.

While net-metered projects in Vermont generally can’t be larger than 500 kilowatts, state statute allows for a facility to generate up to 2.2 megawatts of power and still be net-metered as long as its output is “consumed primarily by the Military Department ... or the National Guard.”

The law also requires that net-metered project be developed on land owned by the Military Department or the Guard.

Technically, that won’t be the case in Westminster.

But the Public Service Board has decided that a somewhat convoluted ownership structure will fit the bill. According to state documents, the arrangement will work this way: Spencer-TGC will acquire the project site and convey it to the Guard via a “long-term ground lease”; the Guard, in turn, will sublease the property to Spencer for development of the array.

“We are satisfied that [Spencer-TGC] has demonstrated that the property transactions proposed ... meet the requirements of [state law],” board members wrote.

Eventual support

Initially, Westminster officials were less than satisfied with the Guard solar proposal, which state documents show will occupy three of five lots in a commercial/industrial business park. A 500 kilowatt solar array already occupies another parcel in that park.

Westminster Selectboard wrote to the Public Service Board in April, expressing concern that the town “would lose valuable land for future business, which will decrease [its] tax base long-term.”

Later that month, town Manager Russell Hodgkins penned a letter to the board raising similar concerns.

But in the same letter, Hodgkins noted that Guard representatives had met with the town, and he said Westminster would be supporting the Spencer-TGC array. Hodgkins wrote that the project “makes sense in the fact that the solar panels will be a good neighbor for the National Guard facility with the active shooting range and military activities that [it] generates.”

In approving the array, the Public Service Board noted the town’s eventual support and also that the solar panels will be built on a “sand- and gravel-extraction operation that has reached the end of its commercially useful life.”

The solar project will create less than 1,000 square feet of impervious surface, and construction activities will disturb less than one acre following reclamation of the former gravel pit, board members found.

Some conditions included

They also decided that the array will have relatively little aesthetic impact despite its size, since it will be set back from the access road and won’t be visible to passing drivers. Nearby trees will be taller than the solar panels.

The board did impose several conditions on its certificate of public good, including:

• The state Agency of Natural Resources found that there is a “high likelihood” that the project site hosts rare, threatened, and endangered plants.

So a state-approved plant survey will be conducted by a botanist. Construction activity must avoid any such plants or, at the very least, the developer must minimize impacts and propose mitigation measures subject to the state’s approval.

• The state must verify the developer’s wetlands delineations and classifications at the site. “All wetlands and their associated buffers shall be avoided and left undisturbed,” the Public Service Board wrote.

• The array will be surrounded by an 8-foot-tall security and wildlife fence, and the developer has to give town officials the means to “access the project site at all times to facilitate the entry of emergency and fire vehicles.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #368 (Wednesday, August 3, 2016). This story appeared on page C4.

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