Starksboro considers solar array

STARKSBORO — School and town officials in Starksboro are hurriedly considering a plan to install a 150-kilowatt solar array in the town before the expiration of generous state and federal tax credits that would defray the cost of the project.
The selectboard and the Robinson Elementary School board are jointly considering the possible solar array, which officials hope could supply town and school buildings with renewable energy while “locking in” electricity costs for both groups.
“As electricity costs continue to go up, and I expect they will, our costs (would) remain fixed,” selectboard chair Susan Jefferies explained.
School board chair Bonita Bedard agreed.
“It would be great to kind of flatline the energy costs for the next 10 years,” Bedard said. Plus, from an educational standpoint, she thinks a solar array could be a boon for Starksboro’s students. “It would be great for the kids to have that be part of their thinking and … their education.”
The conversation about the potential solar installation is moving rapidly. With 30 percent tax credits from both the state and federal government set to expire at the end of the year, the project would need to be operational before Dec. 31 in order to make it financially viable.
The selectboard has slated a May 10 public hearing at 6 p.m. in the Robinson Elementary School multipurpose room to discuss the solar project. The school board will also be discussing the option at a May 12 meeting.
So far, the two boards are considering proposals from two Vermont-based companies. Each company has proposed a different possible design for the array, but in both cases the initial construction would be funded by outside investors recruited by the companies.
Jefferies said the investors would purchase the solar equipment, and own it for five to 10 years. During that time they would have a guarantee from the town to purchase electricity at a set rate.
Between the tax credits and the guaranteed market, Jefferies said she thinks the investment would be a safe one for an outside entrepreneur or company. At the end of the contract, the town would have the option to purchase the equipment at a reduced rate.
Jefferies said that one company has quoted that “buy out” cost to be just over $300,000, a cost that would be shared between the school and the town.
“The thought would be that you basically pay for the equipment with the savings in electricity,” Jefferies said. “In the best possible case, we could end up with solar trackers that are still working 30 years from now and they’ve been completely paid for 20 of those years. Our only cost of electricity would be our maintenance.”
So far, the town is considering three possible sites for the solar array. Jefferies said the first possibility — a site on school property — is arguably the best, in large part because an array near Robinson would have the smallest affect on adjacent landowners.
Other potential sites include a capped landfill east of the town garage, or land behind the town offices.
A 150-kw array is the largest a property owner can build before stricter permitting requirements come into play, and the Starksboro array would generate more than 200,000 kwh per year.
“We feel that between the school and the town, we can use that much power,” said Jefferies.
Depending on the company the town chooses, the array could either feature 96 smaller, stationary solar panels or 36 taller panels that would “track” the sun throughout the day.
If the selectboard and school board decided to sign letters of intent — a decision that Jefferies said would likely be made, one way or the other, in the next month — the next step would be for one of the solar companies to perform a feasibility study to determine the best location for the array.
“We’re trying to get all of our ducks in a row quickly,” Bedard said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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