GUILFORD—Soveren Solar recently found itself in hot water with the Public Utility Commission over its actions relating to the construction of a 500-kW solar array.
In late March, the Commission found that the Dummerston-based solar company was in violation of Certificate of Public Good requirements for the project, which sits on a parcel of land between Kirchheimer Drive and Guilford Center Road.
Soveren must pay the Commission a civil penalty of $5,000.
What could affect the solar array’s future is the Commission’s demand that Soveren file a request for an amendment to its Certificate of Public Good. If the Commission denies the amendment and the Certificate is revoked, the project could get decommissioned.
In late October of 2016, Vermont State Employee Credit Union CEO Rob Miller and VGreen Program Director Laurie Fielder flipped the switch on the new array in Guilford center.
Will Wohnus, the property owner, signed a 30-year lease with Soveren Solar for their use of three acres to house the project.
The array, which cost more than $1 million, sends electricity into Green Mountain Power’s grid through the net-metering program. The credit union will receive enough power from the solar panels to provide electricity to all of its offices.
While Miller, Fielder, Wohnus, and Soveren owner Peter Thurrell were popping Champagne corks at the switch-flipping ceremony, some neighbors were in a less celebratory mood.
Weeks before the event, Tammy Sargent and Nick Junjulas, whose properties abut Wohnus’s field, filed separate complaints against Soveren with the Public Utility Commission (formerly known as the Public Service Board).
According to PUC case documents on the matter, Sargent and Junjulas “had each previously filed complaints with the Vermont Department of Public Service Consumer Affairs and Public Information division complaining that the Project was not being built as they had expected based on the notice of the Project provided to them by Soveren."
Sargent and Junjulas claimed that Soveren failed to properly notify them of changes to the project’s size and siting, and by this failure, Soveren prevented them from participating in the Certificate of Public Good process.
The array’s new location is visible from their homes, and has affected wildlife in the area, Sargent and Junjulas said.
After Consumer Affairs filed its own report, it recommended the Public Utility Commission do the same.
On Nov. 18, 2016, the commission opened its investigation into whether Soveren provided notice of the project consistent with Commission Rule 5.110(C)2, which requires a 45-day notice to a number of state, regional, and local entities, including “the landowners of record of property adjoining the project sites.”
In his testimony to the commission, Thurrell said one of his employees mailed notices to all abutting neighbors, including Sargent and Junjulas, via first-class mail from the Putney Post Office.
“I have no reason to believe that the 45-day notice was not received by any of the intended recipients,” he said, and noted neither Sargent’s nor Junjulas’s letters was returned as undeliverable.
One of the abutting neighbors, Jane Krochmalny, did receive the notice. According to Thurrell’s testimony, after she received the letter, Krochmalny requested that Soveren move the array to a place less visible from her property. Thurrell agreed to do so.
Thurrell told the commission he moved the array’s location within the parcel of land, but didn’t deem the change substantial enough to require a second 45-day notice.
The commission disagreed, and required Soveren to file an amendment to its Certificate of Public Good to make the application consistent with the project that was actually built. This amendment allows parties, such as the adjoining neighbors, to submit comment to the commission on the CPG.
Other entities empowered to comment on the array’s CPG are the town’s Selectboard and Planning Commission.
Sargent and Junjulas appeared at the May 14 Guilford Selectboard meeting to air their concerns. Thurrell was also present.
Sargent told the Board that she and other affected neighbors “ask the Selectboard to hear us and add their comment to the Public Utilities Commission because we lost our right, we didn’t have a voice in this at all, so once this was built, now it’s, like, ‘Let’s just allow it to be there.’”
She noted that she and the other neighbors aren’t opposed to solar power. Sargent also recognized that some townspeople believe the array “is not that bad,” but, she said, “that’s not what this is about. Rules are put in place [...] and there would be a penalty if you didn’t [comply]. The rules were not followed [by Soveren] on this.”
Thurrell said that if Soveren’s CPG were revoked and the array had to come down, it would be “unprecedented.”
He noted the site “is already built, we connected it to the grid, it’s provided power for over two years. [The neighbors’] objection didn’t come until after it was completely built.” In Sargent’s testimony to the Public Utilities Commission, she said she was unable to object because she never received notice that she could.
Public vs. private good?
Thurrell questioned the Planning Commission and Selectboard’s agency. He said the Planning Commission “has to take into consideration” and make a distinction “between the public good and the private good.”
The complaints, he said, are coming from “private landowners, and the [PUC’s] job is to determine if this project is in the public good.”
“This project pays taxes, it provides renewable energy for all of the VSECU branches all over the state,” and Wohnus benefits from the leased land, said Thurrell. “The state has decided it’s in the public good when we benefit from renewable energy,” he said.
Board member Richard Wizansky agreed the public/private distinction poses an important question and noted, “I wouldn’t want to be looking at that [array], but, on the other hand, there are thousands of people” who benefit from the panels.
During the lengthy discussion, Board Chair Sheila Morse reminded attendees that the Selectboard’s role isn’t to adjudicate the issue.
Board member Gabrielle Ciufredda said they didn’t have enough information to issue a comment, and she would like to examine the issue through the lens of the Town Plan and the renewable energy referendum passed at the 2018 Town Meeting.
At the May 21 Planning Commission meeting, those members also tabled the decision. Morse, who serves as the Selectboard liaison to the Planning Commission, noted all interested parties have 45 days past Soveren’s filing date for the amendment to their CPG.
On May 29, the PUC gave Soveren Solar more time to file the CPG amendment. Per Soveren’s request, the company now has until July 15 to submit the application. This also extends the comment period for interested parties.
According to the meeting’s draft minutes, the Planning Commission will revisit the matter at their June 18 meeting. During the Selectboard meeting, Ciufredda reminded attendees to provide comment to the Planning Commission. “They really want input,” she said.
At the end of the discussion at the Board meeting, Selectboard member Verandah Porche characterized the issue as a “cautionary tale [...] in neighborly relations and doing business.” Porche pointed out that because “the town has rejected zoning, it means there’s a freewheeling procedure that leads to harm done with nobody having bad intentions.”