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Norwich Plugs Into Solar Power

Norwich — The town has entered into a power purchase agreement with a Norwich-based company to build a solar facility that would significantly reduce Norwich’s carbon footprint while providing a fractional savings in energy costs.

The Selectboard, acting upon an idea put forward by the energy committee, last week approved the agreement with Solaflect Energy, which will build, own and seek investors for the nearly 150-kilowatt facility.

For Norwich, the benefit in switching to solar power is more ecological than financial. The town’s average yearly electric bill is about $25,000, Town Manager Neil Fulton said, and he expects the facility to chop off about $1,800 from its electricity costs.

“It’s a small economic savings for the town,” Fulton said. “We’re really not doing it for the economics, we’re doing it to reduce the carbon footprint of the town.”

Bill Bender, president of Solaflect, said the project would supply more electricity than the town buildings require, and therefore plans to reach out to other businesses who might be interested in becoming users. For example, the Norwich Public Library has shown interest, Bender said.

Norwich Energy Committee members have called the project “risk free” because there would be no cost to taxpapers, nor would the town own the solar facility and incur operating and maintenance costs. And if the solar panels are destroyed or knocked out of commission, the town can switch back to buying its electricity from utility Green Mountain Power, said Alan Berolzheimer, chairman of the Energy Committee.

Bender said he hopes to have half the facility — enough to benefit the town — completed by the end of the year. However, he said construction depends upon the weather. He plans to build the other half of the facility in the spring.

Berolzheimer said the facility would be located on a parcel of land on Route 5 near Nordic Skater. But Bender would not comment on the exact location of the two-acre facility because he hasn’t yet signed a land lease agreement with the owners of the property.

The agreement between the town and Solaflect includes an option for the town to purchase the solar arrays in eight years.

Solaflect will be responsible for raising the financing through investors and construction. The electricity generated by the solar panels will be fed into the utility grid, and because of Vermont’s group net metering law, can be allocated to various customers, including Norwich, Bender said.

Solaflect’s facilities use tracking arrays that move throughout the day to follow the path of the sun. The tracking allows the arrays to produce 40 percent more energy compared to stationary arrays.

The six-year old company has received two “SunShot Incubator” grants from the U.S. Department of Energy for $1 million each. The grants have supported much of Solaflect’s research and development.

Bender said the Norwich project will be the company’s largest, with 39 trackers, and will span about two acres.

The Norwich Energy Committee has been weighing the construction of a solar facility for five years, Berolzheimer said. In 2011, the committee had hoped to build a 180-kilowatt facility, but scratched the plans when it became evident that taxpayers would likely have to help pay for the facility.

When presenting the proposal to the Selectboard, the Energy Committee reminded board members that the facility comports with the town’s long-range plan to reduce overall energy consumption from fossil fuels.

“When was the last time we were able to do something to fulfill our town plan and also save the town more money?” Berolzheimer said. “Even though it’s not a lot (of money), it’s something.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.