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Vt. Electric Co-op to Build 5-MW Solar Project

Montpelier — The Vermont Electric Cooperative is hoping to build the state’s largest utility-owned solar power project as part of a broader effort to help reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, officials said Monday.

The 5-megawatt project would be built somewhere in the western part of the co-op’s service territory, which stretches across much of northern Vermont, and it would take advantage of a national collaborative effort working to make solar energy cost-competitive with other sources of power, co-op President David Hallquist said .

“We know that solar power does not have to cost more anymore,” Hallquist said at the Montpelier event.

The project is expected to be spread over 20 to 30 acres or could be split into two 2.5 megawatt projects. It’s hoped construction on the first phase can begin in 2015 with the second phase completed by 2017, Hallquist said.

Vermont is continuing to push toward its long-term goal of getting 90 percent of its electric energy from renewable resources by 2050. A shorter-term goal calls for 20 percent power from new sources of renewable power by 2020.

The Vermont co-op is working with 14 other cooperatives from across the country in a first-of-its-kind initiative to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade. The U.S. Department of Energy will provide $3.6 million through its SunShot Initiative, while the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the coops and other groups will share $1.2 million in costs.

There has been a surge in renewable energy among the nation’s electric cooperatives, said Douglas Danley, a senior project manager for the Cooperative Research Network of the Rural Electric Cooperative Association. What they learn could then be shared with other electric cooperatives across the country.

Among the components of the project will be developing standard designs to lower engineering costs, finding better business models for community solar, developing financing and insurance packages and looking for ways to use local engineers and labor to build the projects.

“We’re not exactly sure how this is going to work; that’s why we’re doing the project,” Danley said.

Danley said photovoltaic cells can work well in harsh climates.

“It’s much more efficient when it’s really cold outside and there’s snow on the ground,” Danley said. “You get the reflection and it really does work well when it’s cold. So it really does make sense, not just in Arizona, but in places such as Vermont.”