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Developer Proposes Solar Field



Saturday, April 18, 2015
Woodstock — Some of the energy contained in the sunlight shining down on the grass of a pasture off Route 4 in Taftsville might soon be converted to 500 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power about 90 homes, says a developer who has proposed building a solar farm on the site.

Tom Garden, owner of the Massachusetts-based firm Triland Partners, plans to apply to the state Public Service Board for permission to erect a series of solar panels that would cover about 3 acres of the 15-acre site, which sits above the Taftsville Cemetery, about a quarter mile west of the Taftsville Covered Bridge on Route 4.

To Garden, the Woodstock site seems to have been custom-tailored for solar energy.

The sunny field would require no clearing of trees, is set well back from the road, and already has power lines running along the western and southern boundaries, which he said already gives it the feel of a utility zone. And it’s also within a quarter mile of a Green Mountain Power substation, which means it can connect to the grid with minimal hassle.

Woodstock Town Planner Michael Brands said the town is likely to support or oppose the project based on how well two specific concerns are addressed.

One concern, Brands said, is the visual impact of the panels, which would be facing away from Route 4.

“The back side is not as beautiful as the front side,” Brands said.

Brands said any possible glare caused by sun glinting off the 10-foot-tall metal posts could be eliminated by planting vegetation around the border. Garden said he does plan to plant screening to hide the panels from a neighboring cemetery on the project’s eastern border, but he doesn’t think the visual impact from Route 4 will be significant.

“I just don’t want to promise something that I think, at the end of the day, is not necessary,” he said. Garden said he planned to commission a visual aid that will give people a better idea of what it will look like from the road. He said the mock-up will allay those concerns.

“If you’re driving the speed limit on Route 4, you will barely notice it if you’re traveling west,” he said. “And I doubt you’ll be able to see it at all when you’re traveling east.”

The town’s other possible concern has to do with the land itself.

Brands said that about 25 years ago, another development plan on the site was eventually scuttled because part of the property lies on Class III wetlands.

Under Vermont state law, Class I and Class II wetlands appear on the Vermont significant wetlands maps, or have been identified by state officials as having a certain amount of environmental value.

Class III wetlands, of the type on the proposed solar farm site, meet the definition of a wetland, but have not been identified for protection.

Brands said that the Public Service Board is only required to consider Class I and Class II wetlands when issuing a permit.

Garden acknowledged the concern, and said he was working with an environmental consultant to find the edges of the wetland.

“We want to stay out of the wetland and avoid the buffer as well,” he said.

Garden said the wetlands division of the Agency of Natural Resources also is a part of the state permitting process.

Solar Market Heating Up

Garden, a graduate of Dartmouth College, has been a developer for 30 years. But it wasn’t until 2008, when he was in Burlington visiting his son, then a University of Vermont student, that he began to think seriously about developing land in the state for solar energy.

His first project, a 2-megawatt facility in Williamstown, Vt., was completed in 2012. At any given time, he said, there are about a half-dozen sites where he’s doing additional due diligence. Currently, he’s exploring sites in Royalton, Hartford and Thetford, as well as an additional site in Williamstown, among others.

Garden said that, given the chance, he would develop nothing but solar.

“It’s somewhat more rewarding because, rather than dealing with neighbors to discuss traffic and noise and lights and trash, I was talking about a solar farm that generates no traffic, generates no noise, is good for the environment, and adds no burden on the sewer system,” Garden said. “It feels good. It very much feels good.”

Garden isn’t the only developer to sit up and take notice of the new fiscal realities surrounding solar power.

While the number of solar farms in Vermont remains small, the one-two punch of federal tax credits for investors and state credits for customers have set the stage for a solar energy explosion, Garden said.

“I think it’s going to continue to grow faster and faster every year,” he said. “There’s just a greater appreciation today for the need to improve the environment.”

Numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that Vermont had no measurable solar electric power industry generation before 2011. In that year, 18 megawatts of capacity came online; in 2012, that increased to 50 megawatts.

More recent data from the Solar Energies Industry Association suggests that solar is ramping up rapidly in the state, driven by more than 70 companies that manufacture, develop, engineer, finance or install solar apparatus.

The association says that as of 2014, 73 megawatts of energy were being produced in Vermont, including 38 megawatts installed in 2014 alone.

While the amount of electricity produced by solar panels in the state is dwarfed by other renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and hydroelectric plants, the blistering pace of solar growth is expected to continue — federal projections are that national consumption of solar power will nearly double between 2013 and 2016.

Vermont’s Solar System

In 2005, Vermont began actively tinkering with the state’s electricity market with the creation of the Sustainably Priced Energy Development program, commonly referred to as SPEED. The program was created to transition to 75 percent renewable sources for energy produced in the state by 2032.

The law has been beefed up in 2009, 2012 and 2013, each time to modify the basic “standard offer program,” which gives long term, fixed price contracts to renewable energy facilities like solar farms. Triland would make the electricity produced on its site available to customers through a net metering program.

The state guarantees Triland a value of 19 cents per kilowatt produced; Triland would sell those credits to its customers at a cost of about 17 cents per kilowatt.

One of the more controversial aspects of state law has to do with local control.

Brands and Woodstock Town Manager Phil Swanson both pointed out that the town has a limited role in the proceedings.

“Because it’s an energy facility, the laws do not allow the town to regulate it by issuing it or deny it a zoning permit. The town has no say,” Swanson said.

The Public Service Board does review the Town Plan as part of their deliberations and asks the town for input, but the town doesn’t have a seat at the table where the decision gets made.

Garden said that power should remain with the state.

“The process is controlled by the Public Service Board, as it should be for any energy project. That’s the right way for the process to happen,” Garden said. “But there are some communities that say they want more of a say in the process. They have a say now. They just want more say.”

Garden said he’s met with town officials, several abutters and Sustainable Woodstock in an effort to garner support from the community.

“I don’t want this to be something forced on people,” he said. “I want them to have input into the process.”

Neighbors Weigh In

Two neighbors to the project offered differing points of view; both said their opinions were more heavily influenced by the larger political context surrounding solar power than by personal gain or loss.

Horst Dresler, owner of an abutting print shop, said he wouldn’t support other types of development on the land, but the solar farm receives his stamp of approval because of the environmental benefits.

“Let’s face it,” Dresler said. “Renewable energy is a positive step.”

Victoria Brooks, who owns the Historic Taftsville Country Store right up the road from the site, said she, too, is a big supporter of alternative energy sources like solar power.

“The concept, the philosophy, the mission, I am absolutely on board with,” she said.

Still, she was reserving judgment on the proposed solar farm because she is bothered by the idea that government subsidies are structured in such a way as to insert layers of middlemen between the consumer and the solar power.

“If only big corporations are able to harness the sun, it undermines the spirit of the whole idea,” she said.

Brooks said she expected to form a more solid opinion as she learns more about the proposal.

“I want to weigh the benefits against what we have to give up, in terms of how many people there are between us and the sun,” she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.