Waste District gets it right with solar siting and planning

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Never underestimate the value of lessons learned from a children's fable. Take for example "The Tortoise and the Hare" — the moral of the story being that slow and steady wins the race.

Such is the case with the proliferation of solar development in Vermont. We all want to get to the finish line of the state's renewable energy goals, but we also want to make such investments wisely to get the most bang for the taxpayers' buck, without sacrificing the beautiful aesthetics for which Vermont is so well known. The frenzied pace of solar development in recent years has created a significant backlash over concerns about that landscape. Some of this, of course, is the short-sighted "not in my backyard" mentality, but there is something to be said for taking a more careful, deliberate approach.

Such is the case with the 5 megawatt solar project at Windham Solid Waste Management District's former landfill in Brattleboro.

After years of work by local officials, the project finally received a certificate of public good last Friday from the state Public Service Board (now called the Vermont Public Utility Commission). The array will consist of about 16,000 solar modules and cover roughly 13 acres of the 30-acre closed and capped landfill site.

Bob Spencer, the district's executive director, recalled that solar developers initially approached the district to propose construction of a much smaller landfill array. This was before all the backlash, when it seemed everyone was eager to be among the first to jump on the solar bandwagon. But district officials took a more measured approach, weighing the pros and cons carefully.

Given the time, expense and permitting required, "it just didn't seem worth it," Spencer said.

Biding their time paid off for local officials. Things changed in 2014, when state energy legislation included language allowing a net-metered solar array capable of generating up to 5 megawatts to be constructed "on a closed landfill in Windham County." Previously, such a large solar project would not have qualified for net metering.

"That opened up the possibility," Spencer said.

Hong Kong-based Sky Solar will construct and own the array. Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy handled development work such as permitting and signing up customers — also known as off-takers — who will use net-metering credits to offset their utility bills. That will spread the benefit of the solar array far and wide. The list of off-takers includes eight towns — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Halifax, Newfane, Readsboro, Vernon, Wardsboro and Wilmington. Also involved are Brattleboro Union High School and elementary schools in Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon. Additionally, Marlboro College, Landmark College, the Brattleboro Retreat and the waste district itself will be seeing utility savings due to the solar array.

The district — which has 19 member towns, provides waste-management services and maintains the capped landfill — also benefits in another way, receiving about $100,000 a year in lease payments from Sky Solar. Given that Windham Solid Waste currently is undergoing major changes by closing its recycling center, Spencer said that cash flow will be "a good thing for the district during this time of transition."

As an added plus, all of these benefits come without the drawbacks that have generated objections to other solar projects in the state. People get alarmed about farmland being turned into photovoltaic fields, but a capped landfill is a different story.

In approving the project, Vermont's utility regulatory board said the size of the solar array will not be a drawback due to "advantageous siting" at the landfill off Old Ferry Road. The project is surrounded by commercial/industrial properties, and "the closest residence is located in New Hampshire, approximately 895 feet from the array," commissioners wrote.

"Normally a solar facility of this size would have some adverse aesthetic impacts on the surrounding environment just by virtue of its scale and visibility," state officials wrote. "However, in this case, the project will be sited on a closed landfill in an heavily developed industrial area."

"The project will have limited visibility from most nearby vantage points and will not be visible from the Connecticut River," they added.

Regulatory officials and other solar developers should keep this case example in mind when siting other projects in the state.

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