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Solar Power Could Light Thetford, Strafford Town Buildings

Thetford — Officials in Thetford and Strafford are exploring the possibility of their towns jointly entering into use of a proposed 500-kw solar power project that would supply electricity to school and municipal buildings.

And if they give the green light, the next step will be to secure an investor willing to finance the estimated $1.75-million project.

Dori Wolfe, owner of the consulting firm Wolfe Energy and chairwoman of the Strafford Energy Committee, recently presented a project proposal from Vermont Community Solar to the Thetford and Strafford selectboards. Members from both boards came away saying they were impressed with the idea of building a 4-acre solar facility that would offset electricity costs.

“It makes a tremendous amount of sense,” said Thetford Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey. “It seems like a slam dunk in terms of the cost savings.”

“The concept sounds pretty good,” agreed Strafford Selectboard Chairman Stephen Willbanks. “So far there is nothing negative about it, but we didn’t come to any decision.”

The towns were paired up because neither Thetford nor Strafford on their own have enough town buildings to meet the energy capacity generated by a 500-kw solar array. Buildings that would be hooked up include municipal buildings, both elementary schools and Thetford Academy — or as Wolfe calls them, the “Solar Five.” The buildings would utilize all the power generated by the solar array, which would be the equivalent of what it would take to generate enough electricity to power 90 homes

Encore Redevelopment LLC, a Burlington-based developer of “community scale” renewable energy projects, launched Vermont Community Solar to provide Vermont towns and commercial customers with locally generated electric power at rates below what they pay currently. Encore is active in promoting and developing green energy systems around the state, including a third-party financed 500-kw facility at the Hartford landfill that will produce electricity for “town-owned infrastructure,” according to the firm’s website.

Thetford Academy Head of School William Bugg said the school is excited about the possibility of having its electricity supplied by solar power, but cautioned the project is still in early stages of discussion.

“It’s just the kind of thing our community should be doing — taking the leadership role in renewable energy,” Bugg said. “We just have to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, which is going to take some time.”

Wolfe said she expects more details to be ironed out in the coming months, including in which town the solar array could be located, finding a site and eventually executing a letter of intent if the parties involved agree to move forward.

As far as the 500-kw project goes, an investor would finance construction of the array, so the towns would not incur “up-front costs,” said Chad Farrell, principal in Encore Redevelopment who would be the project’s general contractor. 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 Thetford and Strafford buildings will enter into what is know as “group net metering,” which “allows the production from that one array to be distributed among a number of different meters,” explained Farrell, by permitting electricity users within the same utility district to share the credits of a single renewable energy producer.

Savings are realized by the difference between the credits earned from the electricity produced by the solar array and what is paid to the investor for covering construction and engineering costs of the project, Wolfe said.

“Typical (Vermont Community Solar) participants are likely to save more than $600,000 on electricity over the next 20 years,” according to Encore’s PowerPoint presentation describing the project.

Wolfe noted that the amount the towns would pay the investor to cover building costs would be paid back at a fixed rate over a 10 year period, while electricity rates are subject to increase, meaning the return to the towns could increase. Once the 10-year period expires, the towns would have the option to renew the agreement for another 10 years or purchase the array at market rate.

Wolfe said budget season for the selectboards and school boards has slowed talks about the project, but she said if approval was forthcoming there would still be time to have the solar project built by the end of the year.

“I’d like to make a committee with one representative of each of ‘the Solar Five’ to firm it up,” she said, but added she hadn’t received a response to this idea.

The town that hosts the array will have an opportunity to receive an added benefit, as Encore would lease the land from the municipality for $10,000 per year. The proposed location for the array must be able to accommodate three-phase electrical power, however, because of the heavy loads expected in powering municipal buildings and schools.

The investor, who would finance the estimated $1.75 million cost of building the array, would be eligible for a tax credit amounting to 30 percent of the capital they put into the project under the federal government’s program to spur solar development.

“The tax credits are important to level the playing field and providing added revenue to make the projects come alive,” Farrell said of the federal business energy investment tax credit. Nonetheless, the scale of the array would be too small to qualify for Vermont’s sustainably priced energy development program, a state program to encourage renewable energy projects by locking in contract prices for up to 20 years.

Thetford Energy Committee Chairman Bob Walker said he’s keen on the idea of a joint solar array and said Thetford and Strafford would set an example for towns wishing to convert to solar energy. “Everybody is very positive about it and excited to see it happen,” he said.

Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said the company currently has 141 net metering groups hooked up to the utility’s grid.

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

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