At former landfill, a solar project flickers on
Workers lay cable at the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s solar array in Brattleboro.

At former landfill, a solar project flickers on

Despite delays, progress continues on rate-reducing array

BRATTLEBORO — The new 5-megawatt net-metered solar project on the town's former landfill at the Windham Solid Waste Management District's Old Ferry Road facility is slowly going online.

The project is slightly behind schedule.

According to the project's Certificate of Public Good, the solar array had to get hooked up to the grid by June 30.

“It is not on schedule,” said the District's Executive Director Bob Spencer. “They tried to plug it in [to the grid] last week, but some of the fuses weren't correct, and one of the transformers wasn't working,” he added.

The transformer's manufacturer, and workers with Green Mountain Power, have been at the site to fix the problem and test the switches, Spencer said. On July 5 and 6, workers were able to get a portion of the array temporarily online, which he said satisfies the CPG.

“The array is currently in the commissioning and start-up phase, and start-up and testing will continue over the next few weeks,” Spencer said.

“It's way more complicated than I realized,” he noted.

The array, which Spencer said is the largest in the state, covers approximately 13 acres of capped landfill overlooking the Connecticut River.

Sky Solar, the project's owner, has a 20-year lease for the land and pays the District $102,000 per year on a quarterly schedule.

Sky Solar hired Gransolar Group to oversee engineering, procurement, and construction of the solar array. Encore Renewable Energy, based in Burlington, secured the permits and the CPG, and negotiated the power purchasing agreements with the off-takers.

Treading lightly

Dummerston-based Evans Construction performed the site work, which began in January.

To prepare the land for the array's installation, Evans' workers had to tread lightly - literally. Regulations for capped landfills prohibit disturbing the clay cap. “The permit said if a tire track was more than 4 inches deep, they had to stop work,” Spencer said, and he noted there was someone there measuring the tire tracks.

To comply with the permit, any trucks Evans brought off the access roads had to run on treads, like those on a tank, rather than on wheels. This ensured the weight of the heavy machinery was evenly distributed and didn't damage the landfill's cap.

“Evans did a great job,” Spencer said. He noted January and February's very cold, dry weather helped move the process along because the ground stayed frozen. Had it started to thaw, it would have delayed the work because of the risk to the cap.

Once the site work was complete, Gransolar hired a company from North Carolina to install the solar array. “They've been excellent to work with,” Spencer said. He noted there were sometimes 70 employees at the site, working 10-hour days, six days a week.

The solar panels' concrete ballast blocks also had to remain above ground to comply with the permits. “The base is in plastic tubs filled with concrete,” said Spencer, who noted there are almost 3,000 tubs holding up the brackets that support the 16,000 solar panels.

Once the array goes online, it will provide net-metering electricity credits to 17 contracted off-takers, including the District itself, seven schools, eight towns' municipal structures, and the Brattleboro Retreat.

“When the array goes online, our rates will go down,” said Spencer, who noted Brattleboro “is the big winner here.” The town and the high school together are taking more than 2,000 kilowatts of power.

Big savings projected

In February, Jesse Stowell, director of business development at Encore, told The Commons that based on Brattleboro Union High School's previous usage, “We estimate that [BUHS] will save just under $70,000 in the first 12 months after project commissioning. The projected average annual savings is $91,863 over the 20-year contract term. That projection includes an assumption that utility rates escalate at 2.5 percent per year."

The District has already felt some financial relief from the increased revenue the solar array is bringing. Although the project isn't completely online, Sky Solar has started paying rent for the land. This gives the District more flexibility in making capital purchases, which continue to support the District's current and future operations.

The District's Board of Supervisors recently approved the purchase of a new loader to turn and mix the compost piles at the Old Ferry Road site, Spencer said. This $236,000 apparatus is partially paid for by a $17,500 grant he secured from the USDA, $202,000 of it is financed, and now Spencer doesn't have to hire another company to turn and mix the compost piles. The District sells its compost, and this year's sales are two times what they were last year, he noted.

Last year, the District's Board of Supervisors voted to close the Materials Recovery Facility, partly because the expense of operating it and investing in capital improvements was too much for some town officials to bear. As a result, the District had to lay off eight of its workers.

The lease revenue that Sky Solar is paying the District has allowed Spencer to rehire one of those workers. Although it's only part-time right now, the job will soon expand when one of the transfer station's staff retires. “He's a great employee,” Spencer said.

Additional plans for renewable energy and expanding the District's composting program will allow for more revenue for the District, and new employees, Spencer said.

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