Panel Rejects Hartford Solar Appeal

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 05, 2018

Hartford — The Vermont Public Utility Commission has rejected a last-ditch effort to erect solar panels on the roof of the Wendell A. Barwood Arena.

The project, one of three that the town of Hartford got approval for from the PUC in 2016, was designed to help the town be more energy efficient and reduce electric bills by an estimated 35 percent.

Supporters of the project for the Barwood Arena — which uses a lot of energy to produce and maintain ice — envisioned a 594-solar panel array capable of generating 150 kilowatts of energy, or enough to power roughly 27 homes.

But in 2017, a new law capped the amount of net-metered solar equipment that any customer — including the town of Hartford — could install.

Because of this, the town was running on a clock to see the projects, which were approved under the old rules, installed before their certificates of public good expired in February.

In October, Norwich Solar Technologies, which assisted the town in its PUC application, won the bid to do the work, and at the time said the tight timetable for completion was not projected to be an obstacle.

The other two projects — on the roofs of the town’s wastewater plant and public works building — have been completed and are doing well, Hartford Energy Coordinator Geoff Martin said last month.

However, Norwich Solar soon ran up against a problem when an engineering review demonstrated that the Barwood Arena roof could not safely support both the panels at the same time as a heavy load of New England snow. The arena was built more than 40 years ago.

Norwich Solar was prepared to reinforce the roof at its own expense, but did not have time to do the analysis, and the work, before the deadline, according to Jim Merriam, who joined the company as its president around the beginning of the year.

In December, it applied to the PUC for an extension to the expiration date of the certificate of public good, but the application was rejected in January. It immediately appealed the decision, but the appeal fell on deaf ears, Merriam said earlier this week.

“Despite support from the Department of Public Service in our request to extend the (certificate of public good) deadline — the PUC rejected the extension,” Merriam said.

In its January ruling, and in its denial of Norwich Solar’s motion to reconsider, the PUC argued that the solar company hadn’t performed “due diligence” by failing to perform a detailed structural analysis. It also argued that granting an extension would encourage other applicants to game the system by filing for extensions to evade future regulatory changes.

Merriam said inadequate load-bearing capacity for a roof is a very common problem within the solar installation industry, but that it usually doesn’t make sense to pay for a detailed analysis before a project has been approved.

Normally, he said, “an entity like the town would not pay for an expensive structural review prior to the award of a contract — the risk and cost is almost always born by the solar installer, which protects the town and taxpayers.”

When it applied for project approval, Norwich Solar was relying on a preliminary structural review that concluded the roof was “likely” to pass muster, but that it ultimately was “pending further review.”

That the problem could crop up had been anticipated since at least September 2016, when officials at the Hartford School District, which owns the land beneath the arena, expressed doubt about the project’s prospects, based on a study from a few years previous that concluded the roof would not be able to safely bear the weight of solar panels.

At the time, Alan Johnson, the Hartford Selectboard’s liaison to the Hartford Energy Commission, said that the new availability of lighter, more efficient solar panels was expected to make the difference. That idea, combined with the preliminary structural review, made project supporters optimistic about its chances to move forward without a roof reinforcement project.

On Friday, John Cotter, deputy general counsel at the Vermont PUC, said that technically, the company has another week to file a final appeal, but Merriam said there are no plans to do so.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.