City jumps on solar deal; Ferrisburgh still investigating

VERGENNES — While Ferrisburgh continues with a cautious approach to a solar array on town property that some estimate could net the town a half-million dollars over the next two decades, the city of Vergennes has jumped in and put making a similar deal on the fast track.
City Manager Mel Hawley said after he read a recent Addison Independent article about Encore Redevelopment’s offer to lease 3.5 acres of Ferrisburgh land for a solar farm — and then let the town reap the benefit of low-cost power for 20 years — he called the five-year-old Burlington firm the next day.
Hawley then met on this past Wednesday to discuss the proposal with Encore representatives, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union business manager Kathy Cannon, and two Ferrisburgh residents who have worked to bring Encore to that town — Ferrisburgh energy committee head Bob McNary and real estate broker Carl Cole.
Hawley also informed Vergennes aldermen last week that he saw the potential for both immediate and long-term energy savings for the city’s sewer plant, town offices and the Vergennes Opera House, public works building, and two union schools.
He told the Independent last week he estimated the city could save up to $30,000 in power costs in the first year, assuming at least 3 acres of land could be found to host a solar farm that could produce 750,000 kilowatt hours a year.
The savings are too good to pass up, Hawley said.
“I told the city council my focus is going to be on solar for the next month or two,” he said.
Encore head Chad Farrell has not prepared estimates for Vergennes.
But counting the $10,000-a-year lease payment Encore is offering, $2,000 annually in property taxes, and savings in power bills — Hawley said there is an immediate credit, and Farrell said the power will be sold to the communities fixed at the current rate for the next 20 years regardless of inevitable price increases — Farrell estimated Ferrisburgh could save about $500,000 in 20 years.
In an email to the Independent, Farrell guessed that considering the power usage on city properties and the city’s share of reduced power costs at the union schools, equal savings were possible.
“This depends on the total project size and the site on which the system would be built (things like distance to three-phase interconnection, location, construction considerations, etc.),” Farrell wrote. “Based on the sites we have seen and discussed, however, I would imagine that the savings will be comparable to what we have discussed for the Ferrisburgh project.”
Meanwhile, that Ferrisburgh project does remain on track, and Farrell said as long as the town acts before state funding for net-metered alternative energy projects runs out it would be possible to do both.
“We could continue to move the projects forward expeditiously,” wrote Farrell, whose firm has previously worked with Burlington, South Burlington, Middlebury, Milton, Middlebury College and Vergennes, on the Northlands Job Corps wind turbine. “We … think there could actually be some good synergies allowed by doing the two projects.”
Encore has proposed to put its Ferrisburgh project on the northwest corner of the 34.9-acre, town-owned parcel at the junction of Routes 7 and 22A. The town has been marketing that land, which has within it a 9-acre parcel zoned for light industry, among other uses. Within that 9 acres there is a 4.5-acre building envelope.
The rest of the land is either wetland or protected by conservation or agricultural easements. Cole, who has looked into the issue while helping the town to market the land for $375,000, has said he believes the solar array would be permitted outside the 9-acre piece that is key to its overall marketability.
Ferrisburgh selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said last week she and the board believe the next step is to confirm whether that is the case before they look further into a deal with Encore, and the board has given that task to the town attorney.
“We have to check to see if we can put it on the conservation land,” Lawrence said. “That has to be our priority now.”
If that obstacle is overcome, the board will still have questions, she said.
 “If we pass the first hurdle of the land we would be wanting to find out more,” she said. “We’ll continue to pursue discussions.”
Certainly, there are questions in Vergennes, too, not the least of which, Hawley said, is finding a site.
Ideally, enough land could be found on the roughly 8 acres that houses the sewer plant, which already offers the necessary three-phase power.
But Hawley acknowledges things might be tight down by the plant, even if the arrays could be scattered around the facility.
“I think it will be difficult to put it all down there, but we’re going to look at it,” he said.
Other city-owned land includes parcels off New Haven Road and Comfort Hill, but in each case extensive tree clearing would be required, something Hawley believes the Public Service Board might frown upon.
Private land on Panton Road, possibly school property, and state-owned land near Northlands Job Corps are also under consideration. It is also possible that a smaller array could go down near the sewer plant and offer lesser savings. Hawley said many options are in play.
Farrell said Encore will work quickly to help city officials make a decision, and that the company was already looking at sites as of late last week. The list will be narrowed down soon, he said.
“We would hope to have a site or two selected for additional investigation in the next few days, maybe by mid-week,” he said.
Certainly, school officials will listen to proposals that will save even a few dollars on their tight budgets. Cannon called it a wonderful opportunity.
“On behalf of the schools, we would certainly accept any savings the towns have to offer,” said the ANwSU business manager.
Hawley noted that Ferrisburgh is a so-called “sending town,” and even small cuts to the community’s school spending would add up. 
“If there is an opportunity to lower the per-pupil cost even a little bit, it’s a huge saving to the Ferrisburgh taxpayer,” he said.
The city charter requires voter approval for any real estate deal, including a lease for a solar farm.
With potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, Hawley hopes to have something in place for voters to consider on Town Meeting Day.
“I’m dropping everything and dealing with this,” he said. “That’s real money, and it’s for 20 years.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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