How do four Vermonters put together a solar farm?
By George Harvey
The Bondville Solar Farm is named for the unincorporated hamlet of Bondville, which is part of Winhall, Vermont, in the south-central part of the state. It started in January of 2013 with a walk through a property largely made up of a somewhat overgrown field where sheep had once grazed and adjoining woods. William Jerome, an attorney, and Bill Wylie walked over the land, considering its future. They were interested in promoting solar power and took an active interest in the project.
The land is relatively flat, which is an advantage for a solar developer. It also had another big advantage, which was that the former field was invisible from anywhere nearby. This was a site that could be developed without disturbing anyone.
In Vermont, the question of whether a large site can be developed for solar is subject to review under the Public Service Board. The criteria used for the review are spelled out in Section 248 of Title 30, and they can be used almost as a checklist. Most of the items on the list were of no interest, because they did not apply to the site. Fish, for example, have to be protected, but there were no fish. The presence of “gorges, rapids, waterfalls, or other significant geologic features” is another consideration, but the site had none.
As the work of preparing to file for a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) progressed, the developers went through the issues they could see. Clearly, as a solar array, noise would not be a problem. Since there would be no increase in water usage and runoff could be controlled through swales and other features, water runoff would not be a problem. Aesthetics, a potential issue for nearly any solar project, would not be an issue here, because the panels would only be visible from the highest slopes of a ski area, which was three miles away.
It was a good site, but that does not mean development would be easy. Josh Wiley, one of the original developers, said, “The project was done on a wing and a prayer, and a belief that we could make a difference.” Some potential investors said the project was impossible. After all, they were just four Vermonters who thought they had a project they could do. Even some state employees who got involved said it would probably never happen. Once it did, those naysayers who were still around confessed that they were wrong, and said the fact that the project went to completion amazed them.
Strangely enough, some of the very issues they thought were non-issues cropped up forcefully. For example, one neighbor who got intervenor status under Section 248 complained that the solar project would be too noisy. Legal counsel for a neighbor put together the idea that the project should not be allowed to use property it owned, because of obscure wording in an archaic law. The idea that the solar panels would cause water runoffs from storms to increase had to be investigated and dealt with. Despite the fact that the solar array would be completely invisible to neighbors and passers-by, issues were raised about aesthetics. Some objections suggested that someone just wanted to feel power as an obstructionist, or possibly to be paid off.
One quite real issue resulted from the fact that the developers themselves pointed out a vernal pool to a representative from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The state had not known this, because the pool was not on the maps. This was hardly surprising, because the pool was ten to fifteen feet across and about fifty feet long. As a habitat for breeding frogs and salamanders, however, it had to be protected by a buffer zone, where nothing could be built.
Different official opinions emerged, with the extreme position the presence of the pool would make the entire 20-acre project impossible. The issues were particularly difficult, not because the laws were strict, but because the standards were not clearly stated. The term, “vernal pool” was not clearly defined. Eventually, careful thought prevailed, though protecting a habitat where amphibians breed wound up costing $150,000, hundreds of dollars per square foot. A side benefit of the exercise is that code on vernal pools has been clarified somewhat.
Yet another issue was getting access to power lines. Two neighbors tried to block this. Three other neighbors, however, wanted to see the project go forward and went out of their way to facilitate the project, making it possible to continue forward, though the route they provided was more expensive.
As work on the issues progressed, Vermont Solar Farmers passed the Bondville Solar Farm to RegionSolar, of Sarasota, Florida. This company did design and installation, using mostly local labor. Eventually, the Bondville Solar Farm got its CPG and entered into a power purchase agreement with Green Mountain Power, which would buy the output of the solar farm.
At the end of its lifetime, the solar farm will be decommissioned. A bond for decommissioning has been posted with the state, providing the funds to remove the equipment, recycle it, and clean up the site. At the end of its life, the land should be in better shape than it was before the solar panels were installed.
Asked about the future for Vermont Solar Farmers, Josh Wiley said, “Our whole system model is focused on doing it well, working in the communities we are in. Most of our projects are not ground- mounted anymore.”
Brad Carlson, of RegionSolar, said that company is also looking to develop more solar power in the Northeast and in Vermont as part of Vermont Solar Farmers, the actual legal proponent and developer of the Bondville Solar Farm. “One of the weak links is that there is no ground to put solar on and the rooftops are cluttered, so we are looking at carport structures.” Asked if they would consider floating arrays, he said the concept will run into resistance with state natural resources people, but Regionsolar is considering retention basins.
Josh Wiley said of his experience, “I need to make sure that the picture I paint includes some very positive stuff and positive energy. Even with all the problems, there were some pretty terrific people out there.”