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An aerial view of the new solar facility at the former site of the Windham Solid Waste District landfill in Brattleboro.

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Solar array ushers in bright new era of energy

New project puts 16,000 solar panels on closed and capped regional landfill in Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO—It may have been a gray, rainy fall afternoon at Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD) headquarters, but the sun was on everyone’s minds on Oct. 11 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a massive new solar project.

Spread out across the landscape of the former Brattleboro landfill on Old Ferry Road are nearly 16,000 solar panels that can generate up to 5 megawatts of electricity. The project officially went online June 30.

According to Michelle Cherrier, chair of the WSWMD board of supervisors, it is “Vermont’s largest group net-metered solar array and the largest on a closed and capped landfill.”

Even on an overcast day, the panels were still putting 438 kilowatts of electricity into the grid, according to the power meter behind the WSWMD offices.

Sky Solar Holdings, a multinational company, owns and operates the array along with Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy. Encore did the heavy lifting of securing permits and signing power-purchase agreements for the array’s output. Dummerston-based Evans Construction Inc. did much of the site work.

However, Cherrier said, the project never would have happened if not for the Vermont Legislature passing Act 99 in 2014. The law expanded the state’s net metering program to allow for solar arrays of up to 5 megawatts on closed landfill sites.

“This legislation put the Brattleboro landfill site on a level playing field with typical undeveloped greenfield sites,” Cherrier said.

As a result, Cherrier said, a previously undevelopable piece of property will now be generating electricity for multiple public-sector entities in the region, including the towns of Brattleboro, Wilmington, Readsboro, Vernon, Wardsboro, Dummerston, Halifax, and Newfane; schools in Brattleboro, Vernon, and Putney; Marlboro and Landmark colleges, and nonprofits, including The Brattleboro Retreat.

She said those net-metering customers should save about $375,000 collectively on their electric bills in the first year with the opportunity for “significant additional savings” over the next 20 years of the contract.

For its part, the solid-waste district will receive $102,000 in annual lease payments.

Sky Solar wasn’t the first solar energy company involved in this project. According to Frank Ruffolo, executive vice president for operations, his group was brought on about two years ago after another developer had dropped out of the project due to financial issues.

“We’re so inspired by the teamwork and the local support that we want to continue working with the community,” Ruffolo said. “Early on in the process, there was another generation facility here, which was using the methane gas from the landfill site. Sky Solar acquired that site because we needed to have operational control of both facilities.

“So now we can harvest energy from the local landfill and harvest energy from on top of the landfill. And it’s one coordinated effort under one organization.”

But the supply of methane created underneath the landfill from decomposing waste is steadily dwindling, so Ruffolo said Sky Solar would like to put in an anaerobic digester near the current methane generator and use food waste from other landfills to generate energy.

Encore CEO Chad Farrell said that “it would require about 3,000 tons of coal annually to create the same amount of electric capacity we have here on an annual basis” at the WSWMD solar project, and that the array would eliminate the generation of around 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide yearly.

‘A step in the right direction’

Farrell called this project “a step in the right direction and can hopefully serve as an example of what is and can be possible when multiple stakeholders work collaboratively to achieve positive outcomes.”

That sentiment was echoed by Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor, who said the project is “not just the right thing to do for the environment. It also directly benefits the taxpayers of our town, which I as a Selectboard member really appreciate when we have to put the town budget together.”

Building such a massive array took more than five years of work, “much of it by volunteer representatives to the waste district,” said WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer.

Spencer said because the project is on a capped landfill, no support structures could be driven into the cap. Instead, more than 3,000 concrete-filled plastic tubs were used to support the nearly 16,000 solar panels.

Combined with the district’s growing commercial compost operation and the work of the Rich Earth Institute, which recently moved its urine recycling operation onto the WSWMD campus, Spencer said that the district is poised to be a hub of innovation in the areas of composting and recycling, energy generation, and education.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #481 (Wednesday, October 17, 2018).

Links

“Lights on for a new generator in Brattleboro”: The Commons, Oct. 27, 2010

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