Big solar project eyed for Route 7

FERRISBURGH — A real estate developer is eyeing 16 acres of land along Route 7 in Ferrisburgh near Vergennes for a new solar energy project that could, if built, generate enough power to run 170 homes each year.
At this point, the 1-megawatt solar farm would be the largest solar power project north of Pennsylvania, according to developer Ernest Pomerleau.
The proposed Addison Solar Farm would be located on land just east of the Vergennes Union High School on the Vergennes-Ferrisburgh town line.
The plan calls for roughly 186 ground-mounted, south-facing solar arrays that would take up eight acres on the parcel and generate an estimated 1.2 million kilowatts of electricity per year.
The land is owned by a small group of investors in Addison Solar Farm LLC. Pomerleau, the president of Pomerleau Real Estate in Burlington, is one of the principle investors in the project. Pomerleau purchased the tract of land in 1994, and said that he thinks a solar project makes sense given the land’s south-sloping topography and lack of sewer facilities.
Pomerleau also served as the chair of a governor’s commission on climate change for several years, so renewable energy projects are near and dear to his heart.
“In an ideal world, we want to get off foreign oil,” Pomerleau said. “It’s very expensive and politically unstable.”
But the timing wasn’t right for the solar project — a multi-million dollar investment, Pomerleau said — until new legislation passed last spring helped chip away at the daunting cost.
The proposed project is one of a limited number of energy developments that got a go-ahead under the Vermont Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) program, a state project to encourage renewable energy development.
The SPEED program was started in 2005, but significantly revised in May 2009 after the Legislature passed a law that guarantees renewable energy producers will get long-term contracts with minimum rates for the power they produce. Under the new law, energy producers will be paid 30 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power.
Between the tariff and state tax rebates on solar energy projects, Pomerleau said the project now makes financial sense.
But to qualify for state solar rebates, the developers will have to move fast. If all goes according to schedule, the company will file a petition to the Public Service Board on Feb. 8 to move forward with the project, and expects a decision from the PSB by early summer.
If that happens, Pomerleau anticipates construction could be completed by the end of the 2010. If the project isn’t finished by then, he explained, the tax credits would be off the table — and Pomerleau said that isn’t an option, moving forward.
He’s optimistic about the project, though.
“Solar cells actually do work in Vermont,” Pomerleau said. “The biggest solar area in the world is Germany, and they have less sunlight than we do.”
The team behind Addison Solar Farm is made up almost entirely of Vermont-based companies, including the project’s solar panel supplier and installer, and the project will also look to engage the local community in educational efforts like an informational kiosk. Pomerleau has already met with administrators at nearby VUHS, and said the potential exists for possible learning partnerships in the future with the high school and other nearby schools.
He also thinks the project site, which falls beside a major thoroughfare, could draw positive attention to the potential that solar energy has in Vermont.
“You have thousands of people going by each day,” Pomerleau said. “People will see it, and understand it.”
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien said the educational component of the proposed solar farm is an exciting one for the high school. The informational kiosk would give real-time feedback about what was happening on the solar arrays, and science students could learn about the project as it is being constructed.
“It is a good idea … I have no reason not to support it,” O’Brien said. “It would have benefit to the school and students for all the obvious reasons.”
Though the decision to approve or deny the project falls to the PSB and not the town, Pomerleau will be making a presentation about the Addison Solar Farm to the Ferrisburgh selectboard on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
The solar panels would be located 10 or 12 feet off of the ground, and would be virtually non-reflective, Pomerleau said. Sheep and cows may be used to graze on the land between the solar arrays, he added.
Pomerleau is confident the solar farm won’t be intrusive to neighbors, and so far, he said, the response to the project has been enthusiastic.
“There is very, very strong support for this,” Pomerleau said.
Editor’s note: Reporter Andy Kirkaldy contributed to this story.

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