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The Largest Solar Array in Vermont

The Coolidge Solar Project, the largest solar array in Vermont, is 20MW and consists of about 83,000 photovoltaic panels. Image: NextEra Energy.

George Harvey

Not long ago, the largest solar project in Vermont had a capacity of 2.2 megawatts (MW). For a long time, however, there was no one array that was largest. There were a lot of 2.2 MW solar arrays, because that was the largest size allowed under net-metering.

A change came along when the net-metering law was renewed, specifically allowing one 5 MW net-metered array on a landfill in Brattleboro. That array was tied to the grid last June, and it was formally commissioned on October 11, 2018 (bit.ly/brattleboro-solar). It looked like the solar array on a landfill in Brattleboro might be the largest in the state for a while. There was no state incentive to have larger solar systems, there was comparatively little activity going into developing them, and there was no guarantee that any of them would be completed.

The costs of renewable energy have been continuously declining, however, as a result of what is popularly called the “learning curve.” Formalized as Wright’s Law, it tells us that as we do more work with a technology, we learn more about it, and it becomes less expensive. As a new technology is increasingly adopted, its costs decline in a fairly predictable manner. The costs of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems exemplify this. The result is that it is possible to develop solar systems in many places that would not have been cost effective without state incentives only a couple years ago.

We started hearing rumblings about possibilities for much larger solar arrays planned for Vermont back in 2015. One of them was the Coolidge Solar Project, to be built mostly in Ludlow, with a small part in Cavendish. At 20 MW, it was planned to be four times the size of Vermont’s largest solar system. Initially developed by Ranger Solar, development passed to NextEra Energy, and it was approved by the Vermont Public Service Board in March of 2018.

Work on the array started quickly. A very few months passed in which groundwork was done, and construction materials were arriving in August. The Coolidge Solar Project has approximately 83,000 PV panels in it. They were installed by a work force that grew temporarily to 115 people.

Ludlow has a population of a bit less than 2,000. Since it is not a large community, special arrangements had to be made for such simple things as parking for the installation workforce. During the late summer and fall, some of the local businesses were kept pretty busy, keeping up with demands of the increased numbers of people in town.

The project was completed in the middle of December, at which time it began feeding power to the grid. Its energy is being sold to customers in Connecticut, along with the renewable energy credits, but that is more a fact of accounting than of the flow of power on the grid.

While the work was good for the community economically, there are other, more enduring benefits. The site will permanently employ a small workforce to service the system. Between installation and ongoing employment, the project will provide $15 million spent on local labor through the end of its first twenty years. The site will pay taxes of $4 million over the same time, benefitting both Ludlow and the state of Vermont. Economic activity will add $25 million to the gross domestic product of the state over the same time.

The village of Ludlow will have direct economic benefits as a result of negotiations with Ranger Solar. Two payments were made when the solar array went live, one of $100,000 to the community and one of $75,000 for a new gymnasium floor in the elementary school. Payments to Ludlow will continue at $35,000 per year for the first five years and then at $25,000 per year until the array is forty years old. The total contributions to the village will come to $1,225,000, which is an import benefit for a small municipality.

Scott Murphy, the municipal manager for Ludlow, told us, “The Town fully supported the development and permitting of the Project. It is a comfort to know that Ludlow is helping to bring clean, renewable, and cost-effective energy to the region as well as the jobs and economic benefits from the construction of the facility.”

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