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Hartford Warms To Solar Plans

  • Geoff Martin



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hartford — Within the past month, officials with both the town and the school have made strides toward large solar projects that will help to significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of local government.

After years of disagreement over whether solar systems could be accommodated on school district property, the Hartford School District will instead pursue a new option: using the state’s net-metering program to site an off-campus solar facility that could shave about $25,700 off the district’s annual $250,000 in electricity expenses.

The electricity bill for the district’s eight buildings used to be even higher, Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said on Monday.

“We have been making considerable gains in conservation with new equipment,” he said, such as LED lighting systems.

The net metering program, which requires state utilities to purchase excess energy produced by solar arrays, would allow a third party to build a solar project, sell the solar energy to the power company, and then use that money to offset the electric bill of the school district.

In August, the Hartford School Board voted to explore options with Encore Renewable Energy, a Burlington-based solar energy B-corporation, after hearing a presentation from Encore executive Jesse Stowell. A location has not yet been determined for the project, but new state laws require community solar projects to be located on “preferred sites,” term that is limited to locations like brownfields rooftops, gravel pits, quarries, and previously developed sites, Stowell said.

During the discussion, Stowell said the district would save about $600,000 over a 25-year agreement, and would face no upfront cost.

“We’ll secure a site. We’ll put it through a permitting process. It’s very vigorous, but we’re familiar with it. That’s what we do,” said Stowell, according to CATV video of the meeting.

DeBalsi said that, after looking at other options, the proposal has appeal, in part because it would be relatively simple over trying to purchase and install a solar-powered system on school grounds.

“That’s a huge undertaking, and it’s also a little bit contentious with where you’re going to put those solar panels,” DeBalsi said, noting that staff had raised concerns about adding the weight of a solar array to the roof of Hartford High School.

Proposals from other companies would have saved the district roughly $12,000 a year, DeBalsi said.

School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said the proposal has advantages, but that he would like more information on other options before committing to the 25-year project.

“It makes sense,” he said. “And it’s possible we may be able to do even better, depending on what we negotiate. So that’s the key.”

As the state marches toward a 90 percent renewable energy goal by 2050, off-site community solar arrays are expected to play a large role, according to a 2016 report on by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, which called it “one of the more rapidly evolving markets.”

Bolstered by the Legislature’s move to increase the net metering cap from 4 percent to 15 percent of peak load in 2014, community solar arrays are projected to multiply tenfold over the next 30 years.

The move will help the state to meet its renewable energy targets, but it will also help the town to hit the Five-Year Energy Action Plan that was drafted by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation in March.

Hartford makes up only 1.6 percent of the state population, but its 9 megawatts of permitted solar energy represent 2.9 percent of the statewide total, meaning the town is ahead of much of the rest of Vermont.

Community solar arrays are a vital part of the push for greenhouse gas emissions, but the town government is currently pursuing a different type of project, according to Geoff Martin, who began his role as the Hartford’s first-ever full-time energy coordinator on Sept. 5.

Martin, who did much of his green energy work as a graduate student at Georgia’s Emory University, spent much of Monday completing a formal request-for-proposal for the town’s latest solar-based initiative: a plan to put solar panels with a combined capacity of 255 kilowatts on the roofs of the Wendell A. Barwood Arena on Highland Avenue, the White River Junction Wastewater Facility on Latham Works Lane and the Public Works building on Airport Road.

“That was No. 1 on the list,” Martin said on Monday. “We have such a tight deadline there.”

The RFP, which is currently posted on the town website, calls for all three solar installations to be completed by February, a timetable that has to be met in order to prevent the expiration of state-issued Certificates of Public Good that were issued for the projects last December.

The roof at the wastewater facility is scheduled to be replaced in seven or eight years; the proposals will either include a plan for the roof to be replaced immediately at the town’s expense, or will provide a budget within the scope of the agreement for a future replacement.

The presence of Martin, who is the first full-time municipal energy coordinator in the state, will help the town to move forward with other greenhouse gas emission reduction projects, according to Lori Hirshfield, director of Planning and Development.

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