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Thetford Weighs Solar Energy Plan

Selectman: Project Would Power Municipal Buildings, Save Money

Thetford — Officials in Thetford are weighing the possibility of constructing a 150 kilowatt solar array to offset electricity costs at the elementary school and municipal buildings.

Tig Tillinghast, a Thetford Selectman who is chairman of the solar ad hoc committee, said the cost savings to be realized over a 20 year period on the proposed $550,000 solar project would make the investment feasible.

He said estimates show the town would realize about $240,000 over two-decades between energy cost savings and revenue.

“It’s a fantastic return,” Tillinghast said.

The proposed array would be installed on the roof of the Thetford Elementary School and would generate enough energy to power about 50 homes, said Dorothy Schnure, Green Mountain Power’s corporate spokesperson.

The project, which would generate renewable energy for all municipal buildings, the elementary school and Thetford street lights, still needs Selectboard and voter approval. The project must go before residents because the town would incur debt from the loan it would take out to cover a portion of the construction costs, Tillinghast said.

If the Selectboard approves the project at its Oct. 21 meeting and calls for a special town meeting, the meeting could take place between Nov. 22 and Dec. 2, according to Monday’s Selectboard minutes.

Tillinghast said the project would have no effect on the tax rate.

“We are doing something that would be a bit novel,” Tillinghast said, in regard to how the project could be financed.

Under the proposal, the town would manage the project’s financing. Tillinghast said the town would borrow from a bank and loan the money to a company that would build and own the solar array. After six years, the town has an option to buy the infrastructure and become the owner.

The town would earn money by loaning the funds to the company at a hire rate than it borrowed from the bank.

“We tried to take another look at it because we saw more margin to extract,” he said, noting often times a third party manages the financing.

Tillinghast said the town would borrow approximately $350,000 from a bank to cover a majority of the project costs, and the remaining costs would be covered by an investor. The investor would receive federal tax credits, Tillinghast said.

Earlier this week, the Thetford Selectboard mulled the idea of entering into the solar project, but questions lingered as to the cost-return ratio of the project. Those questions, however, have since been resolved, Tillinghast said.

At Monday night’s meeting, Tillinghast said two major pieces of the project needed to be checked off before it could move forward, one of those being voter and Selectboard approval.

The other was “confusing” information from the state concerning whether the array would be hit by a state education property tax, Tillinghast said. The tax issue might have compromised the financial benefits of the project and “(it) put the fear of God into us.”

But Tillinghast said the confusion was cleared up after meeting with a state property tax official in Montpelier on Wednesday, and the town won’t have to pay thousands in additional taxes.

A $4 per kilowatt fee will be levied, though, “as is appropriate, as the alternative to the education taxes on the value of the solar array,” he added.

The solar array would generate electricity that would be transmitted into the grid of utility Green Mountain Power, which then credits the electricity bills of users. The company building the array can make a margin on the power itself by selling it to the utility at a higher rate, Tillinghast said.

The town sent out requests for proposals in July for companies interested in proposing a Thetford solar project. Out of a pool of 8-10 proposals, Norwich Technologies, of White River Junction, was selected as the proposed general contractor and Triland Partners, of Williamstown, as the lead developer.

Norwich Technologies’ John Langhus said the proposed project would encompass 600 photovoltaic panels, each approximately three feet by five-and-a-half feet.

Bob Walker, who also sits on the ad hoc committee and is chairman of the Thetford Energy Committee, said the project would be beneficial because of the sustainability aspect and cost savings. He noted the array would generate about 60 percent of the electricity needed to power the buildings and street lights.

“It will allow the town to get its energy from a clean, renewable energy source,” Walker said, who is also the director of Sustainable Energy Resource Group, a local nonprofit working to implement efficiency projects around the state. “I think it’s a big opportunity for the town to do an exciting project that will save money for the town and create a model that can be replicated by others throughout the state.”

Tillinghast said this Thetford solar project was a culmination of other proposed projects in Thetford and in nearby towns.

“(We) created a joint committee ... to do a request for proposals about different things and out of that came this,” Tillinghast said. “It’s a really nice thing for Thetford.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

To the Editor: Kudos to the Thetford Selectboard for hatching a scheme that will save its town $240,000 in energy savings and incremental revenue (“Thetford Weighs Solar Energy Plan,” Oct. 18.) Before we all jump on this bandwagon as “a model that can be replicated across the state” as its proponents proclaim, let us first consider the sustainability of its …