BRATTLEBORO—Drivers on Interstate 91 might some day catch a glimpse of a 12-acre solar farm off the highway between Exits 2 and 3, should the company seeking to develop the project land a state Certificate of Public Good, as it has petitioned.
On July 2, representatives of Winstanley Enterprises and consultants from Weston Solutions, Inc., met with commissioners and staff of the Windham Regional Commission in the Hooker-Dunham Building. Later that evening, they appeared before the Brattleboro Selectboard.
Public response to the proposed 2 megawatt solar array designed for 8,300 panels has been overwhelmingly positive. Concerns heard during Winstanley’s July 2 meetings focused on aesthetics and whether the land in question contained prime agricultural soil.
Winstanley, a real estate investment and development company based in Concord, Mass., has owned property in Brattleboro for 25 years. It developed the Country Kitchen site at Exit 1, and bought the 90 Technology Dr. property — site of the former Northeast Co-operatives — in 2004.
Under the Vermont Act 248 statutory process, the company must provide regional commissions, municipal government, and state agencies 45 days’ notice before petitioning the Public Service Board for a Certificate of Public Good.
Ken Grant, vice president of asset services at Winstanley Property Management, said the company is complying with that, and also is participating in the Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) program.
Winstanley submitted the 90 Technology Dr. property to the SPEED program in 2007. Last December, the company received word from the state its solar array would move forward.
Meeting the need
According to Dan Ingold of Weston Solutions, based on 2010 data from Efficiency Vermont — the most recent data available — Brattleboro residents used about 39 kilowatt hours of power.
The Winstanley solar array would provide about 3 million kilowatt hours, he said.
A solar array’s output depends on weather and the amount of sunlight available on a given day, said Joel Lindsay of Weston Solutions.
The array will produce a maximum 2 MW.
Winstanley intends to install the panels in an open field near a building Winstanley rents to New Chapter and Green Mountain Baking Co. The panels will sit on a stationary 15-degree incline.
In documents to the WRC, the company said that it would likely remove some surrounding trees that may shade the array. The system will be secured with a seven-foot-tall security fence.
Green Mountain Power will buy the electricity generated by the array.
The 25-year power purchase agreement with GMP falls under SPEED, a state incentive program enacted in 2005.
According to SPEED’s website (www.vermontspeed.com), SPEED promotes developing in-state energies using renewable fuels. The incentive program allows feed-in-tariffs above normal market rates. According to Wikipedia, a feed-in tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies. It achieves this by offering long-term contracts to renewable energy producers, typically based on the cost of generation of each technology.
Under the SPEED program, the state has set a goal that 20 percent of total statewide electric retail sales starting in 2017 “must be generated by SPEED resources that constitute new renewable energy.”
When Winstanley decommissions the site, as required by Act 248, representatives told the WRC commissioners that it will remove the solar system from the field and return the area to “its original condition,” including replacing soil.
All energy projects go through the Act 248 process.
In 1998, Northeast Co-operatives underwent an Act 250 permitting processes for a separate project that never came to fruition. The permitting process lead to the construction of an eight-foot berm to shield the view from Interstate 91, said Ingold.
According to Cullen Meves of the WRC, the property was also considered for a YMCA several years ago.
Lindsay added that T. J. Boyle Associates, LLC, a landscape architecture firm, has prepared a preliminary report as part of the pre-248 process that included aesthetics, wetlands, threatened species, and archaeological sites.
Meves raised the commission’s concerns about the presence of prime agricultural soils in the field.
According to the state-compiled Natural Resources Atlas, Windham County has the second-least amount of prime agricultural soils behind Grand Isle, she said.
Although the presence of prime agricultural soils might not mean the PSB should deny a CPG, said Meves, given the lack of agricultural soils in Windham County, the topic merited discussion.
According to Peter Van Oot, attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin, under Act 248 Winstanley would enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Vermont Department of Agriculture. The MOU would stipulate what Winstanley will do to restore the soils after decommissioning.
The short answer, said Van Oot, is Winstanley doesn’t know whether there are prime agricultural soils in the field; they’ll find out, and deal with the situation should those soils be present.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s natural Resources Conservation Service, prime farmland in Vermont is defined as having the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed fiber, forage, and oilseed crops, and is available for these uses. Among the factors are nutrient content, porosity, moisture content, and pH levels.
According to Ingold, solar projects similar to Winstanley’s proposal include one in the town of Sharon off Interstate 89, Hartford at the intersection of Interstates 91 and 89, North Springfield on private land, and neighboring Westminster near Interstate 91.
The state accepted six SPEED solar projects last year.
Winstanley intends to file its Act 248 application after the pre-petition period of 45 days, which ends July 18.
According to Meves, comments made to Winstanley during the 45 days are not part of the record.
But, she added, commenting during this time gives the company time to respond to the town or commission’s concerns before it files a petition.
After a brief discussion, the commissioners requested the WRC send a letter to Winstanley saying it generally supports solar projects. The commissioners also said that they had concerns about protecting the view from Interstate 91, and wanted to hear a mitigation plan for any agricultural soils in the 90 Technology Dr. field.
Meves said that given the limited amount of agricultural soils in the county, the WRC wanted to see best practices followed.
According to a letter from Town Planning Director Rod Francis to the Selectboard, the energy chapter of the Town Plan supports installing a solar array. Goals in the chapter include reducing carbon emissions in town by 30 percent under 2010 levels within 17 years, and increasing locally produced energy from renewable sources.
At the Selectboard meeting later the same evening, Van Oot told the board that the solar array would be assessed for tax purposes.
Lindsay estimated that the project’s price tag would range $5 million to $6 million.
The board and audience members favored the project, but voiced concerns about the panel’s reflectivity, aesthetics, impact on the availability of agricultural soils.
The board charged the Town Planning Commission to compile comments for Winstanley.