Vt. Officials OK Wilder Well Site for Solar Array

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2018 12:16:33 AM
Modified: 4/3/2018 12:16:35 AM

Wilder — In the latest sign of Hartford’s push for green, energy-efficient infrastructure, town officials have gained state approval to build another municipal solar project at the site of a town-owned well in the Olcott Falls mobile home park on Walnut Street.

The aging Wilder Well No. 1, which is scheduled to be replaced this year, also is the subject of a new energy efficiency program that’s saving the town roughly $1,000 per month in electric bills, according to Geoff Martin, who was hired seven months ago in the town’s newly created position of energy coordinator.

The town is putting together a request for proposals to build the 120-kilowatt solar array, which would increase its total solar capacity to 888.5 kilowatts — enough to power about 150 homes.

Hartford, which funnels the solar energy back into the grid in exchange for credits to its Green Mountain Power bills, would likely follow the same model it has used for solar installations at the White River Junction Wastewater Facility on Latham Works Lane and the Public Works building on Airport Road.

The purchase and installation costs of those projects were borne by the contractor, Norwich Solar Technologies, which takes a slice of the energy cost savings to fund the project.

Jim Merriam, president of Norwich Solar, said the company is “very interested in working with the town on the (new solar) project,” and intends to bid.

Martin said the new solar project is in its early stages, and that he couldn’t estimate the cost savings it would produce for the town until a contractor is identified.

Hartford is already significantly over the 500 kW per-customer cap that the Vermont Public Utility Commission established in early 2017, but the new solar project would be grandfathered in because town planners submitted the application in late 2016.

The PUC approved the certificate of public good in early March, after considering objections from the nonprofit Housing Foundation, which owns Olcott Falls, and GMP.

The Montpelier-based Housing Foundation said in January 2017 “that it had concerns about the proposed location of the Project and would file subsequent comments,” according to the PUC’s ruling, but “no further comments were received by the Commission.”

The ruling also said the Housing Foundation accused the town of not providing proper notice to the Olcott Falls residents, but the PUC found that the town had acted within the law by notifying the Housing Foundation as the landowner.

Efforts to reach the Housing Foundation were unsuccessful; a handful of Olcott Falls neighbors said on Monday they had no problem with the concept of a solar array at the well site.

After GMP filed a concern that the solar array’s power usage pattern could disrupt a portion of the local grid, the PUC issued its certificate with a condition that Hartford take steps to mitigate the potential problem.

Energy Savings

The town owns two Wilder wells at the site; they are used to draw roughly equal portions of the 240 million gallons of water used to serve the public need, according to annual water quality reports produced by the town. But in 2016, after deciding to replace the 63-year-old Well No. 1, Hartford began relying on it much more heavily to spare wear and tear on Well No. 2, according to Jeremy Delisle, Hartford’s assistant public works director.

“If all goes the way we hope, we will be starting and completing the new Wilder Well No.1 this year,” Delisle said.

Wilder Well No. 1 provides most of the drinking water to about 7,500 Hartford residents in Wilder, White River Junction and Hartford villages.

Martin said the savings were possible by taking advantage of a GMP program that allows larger electricity customers to use a “curtailable rate structure.”

The idea behind that rate structure is that the town’s electricity-driven pumps will operate during off-peak hours, when power is cheaper, and stay quiet during peak usage times.

“These peak periods are expensive for GMP, to provide that additional electricity, because they need to purchase electricity from out of state, typically, to meet that demand,” Martin said. “And it can also be bad in term of emissions as well, because a lot of time that comes from ‘Peaker Plants’ — which are only fired up during these times. And they have high emissions.”

To avoid the high-cost, high-emissions electricity, Martin said, the town is simply shifting its usage so that the system’s storage capacity is stocked in advance of peak periods.

Martin said he learned about the program from Hartford School District Superintendent Tom DeBalsi.

DeBalsi said on Monday that the district implemented the program in January 2017, and realized about $30,000 in savings on what was once a $235,000 annual electricity bill.

Martin said the town saved more than $1,000 off of its $6,000 monthly bill in March, the first full month under the new rate structure. He said he’s in the process of looking at other town-owned properties to see if they can comfortably shift their usage without harm to their functionality.

Engineering work on the replacement project is being completed, after which the town should have a better feel for the cost, Town Manager Leo Pullar said on Monday. He said the money would come from the user fees that supply the water system’s enterprise fund.

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

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