Vt. Towns Consider Solar

Norwich — After a failed effort two years ago to build a solar power facility on the town’s capped landfill, the Norwich Energy Committee is considering a site on Route 5 that could provide a moderate savings to the town’s electric bill while also generating electricity for municipal buildings through a clean energy source.

However, the project is still in the preliminary planning stages and the Selectboard has yet to give a formal nod of support.

The Energy Committee had hoped to build a 180-kilowatt facility in 2011, but the project fell through because of finance models showed taxpayers might have to foot some of the bill.

Now the committee is presenting a smaller scale project that members call “risk free” and would have no financial impact on taxpayers. The committee is exploring an option where a developer would build the project with the help of independent investors, and the town or school district could use the power and decrease their carbon footprint.

“The developers need a partner that will be stable and use the power,” Energy Committee member Linda Gray said. “Towns and schools are really good because they won’t go out of business. We have a group of people who want to get renewable energy into place and we have a user who has a pretty high electric bill.”

The committee is looking at a smaller facility — 150 kilowatts — that would provide a small savings to the town, but not cover all of its electric costs. Gray’s most recent calculation of all town energy costs were $33,000 in 2009 and $29,000 in 2010. Gray said it’s too early to know how much a facility would save the town in electric costs, but she estimated a few thousand dollars.

“It’s not a huge savings, but it’s nothing to sneeze at,” said Alan Berolzheimer, chairman of the Energy Committee. “From the Energy Committee’s point of view, we’re interested in saving the taxpayers money and reducing our carbon footprint. And if we can do both of those things at the same time, that’s what we’re aiming for.”

A Norwich resident has also offered to allow the committee to use about 2 acres on Route 5 for the site of the project. But Gray said the offer of the land has only been a verbal commitment and no legal agreement has been made.

If the town signs a contract with a developer, Gray said she would recommend an option to purchase the solar arrays in several years because they could be bought at fair market value, which is less than the original cost because the panels depreciate in value over time.

In these agreements, the developer pulls together the different pieces, including financing and construction. When the project is complete, the town or school district would pay the developer for the power, said Bob Walker, director of Sustainable Energy Resource Group, a local nonprofit that helps form and support local energy committees. At the same time, Green Mountain Power would credit the town for every kilowatt hour generated by the solar panels.

“When you combine those two numbers, it’s cheaper than what they are paying now,” Walker said. “They are getting renewable energy and paying less for it.”

Vermont has a goal of 90 percent renewables by 2050, so the Norwich Energy Committee is trying to apply the same concept to the town. In addition to the solar facility, the committee is trying to promote residential solar, and 13 solar electric installations were added in Norwich last year. But in order to meet Vermont’s 90 percent goal, Gray said the town should be adding 30 installations a year.

The proposed project nonetheless is a ways from implementation. Not only does the committee need to vet developers and go through a permitting process, it must first get approval from the Selectboard to enter into a partnership with the developer.

Members of the Energy Committee met with the Selectboard in April and May, and town officials asked for more details before they’d be ready to support a project. Some Selectboard members, including Christopher Ashley and Ed Childs, encouraged the committee to do more research and come back before the board with its proposal.

Selectwoman Linda Cook said yesterday that she supports the concept of trying to sustain the environment, but said she wants more exact figures about the cost savings to the town, especially because the financial benefit seems small.

The committee has asked for more information from a handful of developers and will be meeting on Monday to review the information. Berolzheimer said that he hopes the committee can narrow the developers down to one. Once a developer is chosen — and with the Selectboard’s approval — a letter of intent can be signed and the developer will undertake initial engineering and design work.

Gray said the Norwich Public Library has also shown interest in the project, as well as the Norwich School District.

At Town Meeting, residents approved a bond to pay for a new gym roof at Marion Cross, and School Board Chairman Neil Odell said the district is ensuring that the roof is built so that the structure would have the capability to hold solar panels in the future. But at this time, there are no definite plans for a solar roof, Odell said.

Gray approached School Board members earlier this year and asked if they would be interested in purchasing electricity from the proposed off-site solar facility if it moves forward.

“The school is certainly interested in pursuing it,” Odell said, “but we would have to see the details before we would make a decision one way or another.”

Similar projects are also under way, or being considered, in Sharon and Thetford. In Sharon, the town, schools and library are partnering to benefit from a 190-kilowatt facility.

Like Norwich, Sharon plans to have a developer build and maintain the facility and is pitching it as a “no cost to the taxpayer” project. The interested parties have already chosen Talmage Solar out of Maine as their developer and are hoping to purchase the facility after several years of use.

The roof of Sharon Elementary School is being considered for the site of the panels, said Sharon Selectboard Chairman Paul Haskell. The electrical demand would be shared between the elementary school, the town office building, the town library and The Sharon Academy middle school and high school.

While Norwich plans to have a developer find the investors for their potential facility, Haskell said that a group of residents in Sharon have volunteered to find investors on their own.

“It’s a fairly low-risk investment with a fairly decent return,” Haskell said. “And because two entities are municipalities, the interest that goes back to investors is tax free.”

Sharon residents had originally hoped that their facility could be built this summer, Haskell said, but finding investors has gotten off to a slow start and Haskell said he’s now unsure of when construction of the facility would begin.

Thetford is starting a parallel process to Norwich and is in the beginning stages of planning a solar power facility that would support the town and the elementary school’s energy needs. Both the Selectboard and Thetford School District have given the go-ahead to reach out to developers and seek more information, said Walker, who is also the chairman of the Thetford Energy Committee.

The site and size of the project is undecided, Walker said, but it will likely be 150 kilowatts or less.

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