County to host some of Vt.’s largest solar arrays

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s been another busy year for solar firms in Vermont, and Addison County will host some of the state’s largest arrays.
As of Dec. 1, the Public Service Board had issued Certificates of Public Good to 138 projects across the state, ranging from small rooftop units to multi-acre solar arrays. Twenty-six projects are located in Addison County.
These figures don’t include residential-size projects of less than 15 kilowatts, which do not need a CPG.
New Haven saw the most projects given a Certificate of Public Good, or CPG, with six, followed by three each in Middlebury, Monkton and Orwell. Two projects got the green light in Waltham, while the PSB approved one each in Addison, Vergennes, Bristol, Bridport, Ferrisburgh, Whiting, Ripton, Salisbury and Shoreham.
According to a report from the Department of Public Service, the state received 917 applications for net metering projects through October, on pace to break last year’s record total of 1,027 applications.
The largest project approved in the county was a 2.2-megawatt array between Route 7 and Halladay Road, south of Middle Road, in Middlebury by Champlain Valley Solar Farm LLC. That’s the same size as the largest array currently in Addison County, the Cross Pollination project off Route 7 several miles north of New Haven Junction. That array was built in 2012 and produces enough power for 400 homes.
The Champlain Valley Solar Farm array is the second largest approved by the Public Service Board this year, after a 2.5-megawatt array in Rutland.
Also approved by the state in 2014 was a slightly smaller 2.0-megawatt facility near the intersection of Town Line Road and Route 22A in Bridport and a 500-kilowatt array approved on Hardscrabble Road in Bristol.
Despite a flurry of solar array proposals in Addison County this year, the Public Service Board is on track to issue fewer CPGs for solar proposals than in recent years. In 2013, the board OK’d 179 proposals, down from 221 in 2012.
But while the number of proposals may be smaller, firms are looking to build larger arrays than currently exist in the state. In September, solar firm GroSolar presented a plan to the town of New Haven to build two 5-megawatt arrays in town. The projects would occupy 40 acres and produce more energy than 33 150-kilowatt community solar arrays that are being built around the county.
After residents and town officials raised concerns about one of the proposed locations, GroSolar scrapped that plan, but intends to move forward with the other. The Public Service Board will likely rule on that and other proposals for massive arrays next year.
Solar firms have eyed Addison County as a prime location for solar projects, owing to the area’s abundant, flat farmland and access to three-phase power along the VELCO corridor.
Darren Springer, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said the continued growth of the state’s solar industry is due in no small part to changes the Legislature made this year to the state’s net metering program.
“If you were to look back at when Gov. Shumlin took office, there was about 12 megawatts of solar installed,” Springer said. “We’re very much looking at a permitted capacity of about 60 megawatts. That’s quite a large growth in several years.”
The amendments included increasing the cap on net metering from 4 to 15 percent of a utility company’s peak load — a nearly 400 percent increase. Last year, many utilities reached the 4 percent peak from net-metered projects and had to stop accepting power from them.
In net metering, energy generated by a home or business owner’s solar panels is fed to the power grid, resulting in a lower energy bill every month. The Legislature introduced net metering in Vermont in 1998, and since then has expanded the program several times.
According to an October report released by the Department of Public Service, the number of net metering applications has jumped by more than 700 percent since 2008. Despite this growth, the roughly 63-megawatt capacity of the state’s net metered system accounts for just 2 percent of the electricity used by Vermonters.
Vermonters can enroll solar, wind and methane projects in the program, but to date more than 95 percent of applications have been for solar projects.
Springer said it is difficult to predict when the growth of net-metered projects will meet the new 15 percent of peak load limit. Right now, net metering accounts for about 6 percent of that load.
“It’s hard to game it out,” Springer said. “The goal of the 15 percent cap was to get some runway through the end of 2016 and have the period open for that period of time.”
Solar firms in Vermont and across the country are concerned with what will happen after 2016, when a federal tax credit for renewable energy expires. Springer said officials at the Department of Public Service are keeping an eye on that date, too, and have tried to bring consistency to the renewable energy industry, where firms navigate a warren of state and federal taxes, subsidies and tax credits.
Solar companies in Vermont welcomed the net metering changes and say business is booming. SunCommon, based in Waterbury, has seen growth in its residential and community solar sectors. This week, the company announced the installation of its 1,000th residential solar unit, and noted that it has installed units at 146 Addison County homes.
SunCommon solar organizer Taylor Ralph said while the changes to the net metering law have little effect on residential-scale projects, they allow SunCommon to expand its Community Solar Array program.
“By raising the solar ‘cap’ from 4 to 15 percent of a utility’s peak demand, we now have a much larger opportunity to install solar in the state,” Ralph said. “The effect is that the net metering program has allowed Vermonters to continue to grow solar.”
The company said it plans to build around 18 150-kilowatt Community Solar Arrays, with as many as nine in Addison County.
Springer said the Shumlin administration is heartened by Vermonters’ interest in going solar, and said the Department of Public Service will continue to tweak solar regulations so they best meet the energy goals of the state and are fair to consumers.
“In terms of net metering, we’ve seen a real explosion of interest,” Springer said. “Thousands and thousands of people have signed up and installed.”

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