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New Haven tract on Route 7 eyed for major solar farm

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Posted on June 10, 2010 |
By John Flowers



NEW HAVEN — A team of Winooski-based engineers is proposing to build one of the state’s largest solar farms on a 40-acre portion of a 180-acre parcel on the west side of Route 7, across from the Hill Top RV Center in New Haven.

The proposed project, on land owned by Albert and Gail Freyer, would feature 178 ground-mounted solar trackers with photovoltaic panels capable of harvesting enough energy to power 500 homes annually. It would also include an organic farm operation calling for sheep and goats to graze near the high-tech equipment.

Representatives of Cross Pollination explained their proposal to New Haven officials and neighbors in a meeting at the New Haven Town Hall Tuesday evening. Since it is a project that will feed electricity into the state’s power grid, the proposal falls under the jurisdiction of the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) and will not be subject to local permitting review.

Still, New Haven residents and planners will be able to weigh in with their comments and concerns before Cross Pollination files its formal application with the PSB, which could happen as soon as June 28. Some early concerns voiced at Tuesday’s meeting included the impact on neighbors’ view-shed, the potential of reflective glare affecting Route 7 drivers, and the proposed placement of a security fence along the perimeter of the property.

Cross Pollination officials are optimistic they’ll be able to address most of the concerns that have been raised about a project they said was made possible through legislation passed by Vermont lawmakers in 2009.

The new legislation created a “Standard Offer” program, or “Feed-in Tariff,” through which selected renewable energy projects are eligible for subsidies. Cross Pollination President Paul Lekstutis explained he and his colleagues entered, and won a coveted slot, in a state lottery through which 12.5 megawatts of solar electricity generation were put up for grabs under the new Vermont law. That law requires a state utility — in this case, Green Mountain Power — to pay a premium for renewable energy generated by the new solar farm, thereby helping its developers pay for the project.

“The utility company is required to pay a specific amount per kilowatt hour,” Lekstutis said, quoting a figure of 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, which he noted is roughly double the amount for which power is currently being sold in the state. Lekstutis said Cross Pollination’s solar farm would be assured of receiving the 30-cent-per-kWh premium rate on its electricity for the next 25 years. The expected net energy output of the project is approximately 3,425,200 kWh per year (around 2.2 megawatts).

This is the second major solar farm proposal to be pitched in Addison County in recent months. A smaller solar farm is being proposed just a few miles north of the Freyer parcel. That project, slated for 16 acres adjacent to Route 7 in Ferrisburgh near Vergennes Union High School, would generate 1 megawatt of electricity. The Vermont Economic Development Authority on Monday announced it had approved $1.3 million in direct financing for that $5.3 million project.

Wayne Nelson, another partner in Cross Pollination, said he is confident the group will “easily” find investors, tax credits and other financial backing to pull off the project, which Lekstutis said could cost $7 million to $9 million.

Cross Pollination officials said they identified the Freyer land as a good spot for the project because of its orientation to the sun, its close proximity to a major power line and its proven potential for a complementary agricultural use. Cross Pollination has a contract to buy the property from the Freyers if permitting hurdles can be crossed.

Lekstutis anticipates a six-month-long permitting process and at least another year to build the project, if it is approved. It’s a project that calls for:

• Around 178 solar tracking units, spaced approximately 140 feet apart. Each individual tracker will be configured with multiple photovoltaic panels, mounted above the ground on a support frame, with the support frame bolted into a concrete base. Wiring would be fed through the base and into the ground, with the power processed in structures designed to resemble sugar shacks.

John Askew, another member of Cross Pollination, said plans call for a circuit-breaker box to be mounted on a utility pole to feed the power into the state’s grid.

“We are hoping the (power line) doesn’t have to be rebuilt,” Askew said. “We don’t think it will have to be.”

New Haven residents have already contended with a great deal of power line infrastructure expansion in town in 2005 and 2006 as a result of the Vermont Electric Power Co.’s Northwest Reliability Project, which saw tall and wide electric power lines cut through the center of town.

• The solar tracking panels to be electronically repositioned throughout the daylight hours to capture maximum sunlight.

When in the horizontal position, the photovoltaic panel mounted on the trackers will be approximately 12 feet, 6 inches above the ground, and when in the vertical position, the trackers will be approximately 22 feet tall, according to Cross Pollination’s project narrative.

The tracker system will be designed for a maximum wind speed of 90 miles per hour and will be designed to automatically transition to the horizontal position in wind conditions above 45 mph. In addition, for security purposes, the tracker system positions would be on horizontal position at night.

• The solar farm to have setbacks of at least 250 feet from Route 7 and at least 300 feet from all other property boundaries. Cross Pollination officials said the solar farm panels would be equipped with “anti-glare coatings.” That technology, coupled with the ability to electronically re-position the panels along with the setbacks and topography of the land, would help minimize the visual impact of the project, according to members of the group.

“It won’t look industrial,” Lekstutis said. “We are trying hard to make it look more rural.”

Some residents at Tuesday’s meeting served notice they believe the project would create an eyesore for neighbors and a distraction for drivers along busy Route 7.

“You guys should move on; you’re just wasting your time, because there is nobody in town that wants to look at that,” said resident Victor Lavoie, who lives near the proposed solar farm site.

“Sixty- to 70-mile-per-hour traffic looking at these things is not good,” he added. “I didn’t move here nine years ago to look at that out in the meadow across the road.”

Other residents voiced concern about how the site would be secured; whether the project would pay property taxes based on its agricultural zoning or utility use; and what environmental harm might occur if the panels were damaged.

Some residents were also dubious about the success of a farm operation at the site. Cross Pollination officials acknowledged they aren’t farmers, but have friends experienced in agriculture who would be willing to take on the challenge, especially since they wouldn’t have to pay for the land.

“The farm will utilize sustainable farming practices to raise organic livestock including, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens,” the project narrative reads. “Cross Pollination intends to utilize the area between the dual-axis trackers to graze livestock (mainly sheep and goats) as part of the farming operation. In addition, Cross Pollination intends to donate a portion of its produce generated from the farm to the local schools.”

Earl Bessette and his family have owned and operated Elgin Spring Farm in New Haven for decades. Bessette listened with interest to the Cross Pollination proposal.

“I lived in town 14 years before electricity,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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