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St Johnsbury Solar Story

St Johnsbury 500-kW solar system will pay $125,000 in taxes. Courtesy photo.

One Good Solar Array Leads to Another

George Harvey

In St. Johnsbury, Vermont, on a piece of land that was pretty much out of sight behind the Green Mountain Mall (GMM), there used to be a sand pit. In time, the sand pit operations stopped, and the pit became just another non-productive piece of property, having no use and paying no taxes.

Fortunately, sand pits, landfills, and other such sites do have a use. They can be developed for solar arrays to produce clean electricity. Usually they either reduce municipal costs or pay taxes. NST began to take interest in development of a project at the sand pit in 2018 and had Preferred Siting discussions with the St J Select Board and Planning Board, which was amenable to the plan.

The array was to be 500 kilowatts (kW), the limit for municipal or school net-metered solar arrays. (The net metering cap for schools was raised last year so they can take up to 1 megawatt if needed from multiple arrays.) It was more than the municipality needed, so there would be additional electricity off takers. Norwich Solar Technology (NST), the developer, looked for the most obvious partners for the municipal system and approached the St. Johnsbury School District. By happy coincidence, this was just about the same time that the School District was looking for a way to reduce its use of grid electricity. They decided to take the available portion of the solar array.

The solar system behind GMM was a good financial deal for both the town and the school system. According to Kevin Davis, Vice President of Sales for NST, over the 25 years of their agreement, the town would save about $325,000 and the school would save $400,000, and the array will pay $125,000 in taxes.

The solar system is also a good deal for the environment. The array will produce 915,000 kilowatt hours annually, enough to power about 125 homes. That much clean electricity reduces carbon emissions by 17,000 metric tons, according to NST.

Getting the solar array built and running behind the GMM was not the end of the story. The school had put a fair amount of thought into how it could use a 21-acre parcel it had been given on Breezy Hill Road. It decided that it wanted to use the land for another solar system.

The solar array on Breezy Hill Road was approved at the town meeting on March 10. In terms of the capacity and expected productivity, this array will be very similar to the one near the GMM. In this case, however, the business arrangements will be different. The school district, which owns the land, will not get net metering credits for the energy produced, since they already have all of the net metering credits that they need to offset their bills from the first project. Instead, the school district will get income by leasing the land to the array, receiving $98,000 over the course of the 25-year contract.

The net metering credits will be offered to other Green Mountain Power customers, likely ones that cannot benefit from rooftop solar on their own property. It is expected that those credits will be worth about $150,000 each year. They are important because they give many non-profit organizations, including schools, an opportunity to benefit from solar power even though they do not have federal taxes against which they can apply the credits. Kevin Davis said, “Net Metering Agreements are ideally suited for schools, municipalities, and other non-profit organizations that cannot directly monetize the various tax credits that accompany solar projects like this, due to their tax-exempt status.”

The solar systems in St. Johnsbury are not all about saving money, however. School superintendent Brian Ricca explained, “This is really about stewardship of our environment in St. Johnsbury.” He stressed a need for public entities to address alternative energy options.

Norwich Solar Technology is based in White River Junction, Vermont. Its website is norwichsolar.com.

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