New Haven planning commission talks solar reform

ADDISON COUNTY — As the Public Service Board approves hundreds of solar projects in the state each year, ranging from rooftop installations to multi-acre arrays, the state has an interest in ensuring that projects are cleaned up after they are decommissioned.
But a New Haven resident is concerned that the state may not be doing enough. Jim Walsh, who also serves on the New Haven planning commission, penned a letter Dec. 3 to town officials and state legislators questioning whether the state’s policy not to require decommissioning funds for projects smaller than 1 megawatt is sensible.
That policy is found in Public Service Board Rule 5.402(C)(2) which states that any power plants that produce less than 1 megawatt of electricity are not required to maintain a decommissioning fund.
In what he described as a “very serious problem and concern for New Haven,” Walsh worried that after the lifetime of a solar array has expired, the town will be left on the hook to deconstruct it.
 “The projects have a useful life expectancy of 20 to 25 years,” Walsh wrote. “At that point, when the project is worn out, the owners may have changed, be unable to pay for the clean up, or be uninterested in taking care of it. Does blight become the town’s problem?”
As of Dec. 8, the Public Service Board had given Certificates of Public Good to six solar arrays in New Haven (this excludes projects smaller than 15 kilowatts, which do not need a CPG). The Public Service Board did not order any of the projects to maintain a decommissioning fund.
The Public Service Board, as of Dec. 5, approved nine solar projects larger than 1 megawatt this year. Two are located in Addison County: a 2.2-megawatt array near Route 7 Middlebury and a 2.0-megawatt near Route 22A Bridport.
In approving both of those projects, the board required the solar firm to create a decommissioning fund.
For the Middlebury project, by Champlain Valley Solar Farm, LLC, the board ordered the solar firm to file a decommissioning status report, with cost estimates, every year. The order also prohibits the company from deconstructing the project until regulators have evaluated environmental concerns with respect to a nearby wetland.
For the Bridport project, the board ordered Bridport Solar Holdings to save $106,000 into a decommissioning fund, with $5,000 dedicated to agricultural soil reclamation.
The 500-kilowatt array in Bristol, the third-largest solar project approved in Addison County this year, is not required to maintain a decommissioning fund.
The New Haven planning commission discussed solar decommissioning funds at its meeting Tuesday evening.
Walsh said the commission, as it works toward developing a new town plan, floated the idea of including a section that requires solar projects to maintain a decommissioning fund.
Jeanne Elias, an attorney with the Department of Public Service, said that while the Public Service Board does not mandate closure funds for arrays smaller than 1 megawatt, the board retains continuing jurisdiction over projects it approves. This means that the board can amend or even revoke CPGs it orders, and can also impose additional conditions on a project.
 “If the Board or Department was made aware that a facility with a CPG was no longer operational, or was operating in violation of a CPG, either the Department or the Board could initiate an investigation into that situation,” Elias told the Independent.
Elias added that it is her interpretation of the law that the board can force solar firms to either shut down a project or create a fund to do so, if the board felt that was a necessary course of action.
 “It is my opinion that the Board could exercise its jurisdiction over such projects in a variety of ways, and it is conceivable that the Board could issue an Order requiring that a project be decommissioned,” Elias said.
Elias said that individual towns would not be tasked with cleaning up projects if solar firms failed to do so because CPGs only apply to the entity that filed the application; usually a corporation or LLC.
One of the New Haven projects approved this year, located on Dog Team Road, is a one-acre, 150-kilowatt Community Solar array by Waterbury solar firm SunCommon.
Duane Peterson, co-founder of Waterbury solar firm SunCommon, said that while the Public Service Board may not mandate a decommissioning fund for small projects, SunCommon promises to do so.
 “SunCommon’s contract with Community Solar Array landowners commits us to decommissioning at the end of the system’s useful life,” Peterson said.
Peterson said the CSAs are so small — only about one acre — that there is no need to put money into a fund for decades. Plus, there is no permanent infrastructure in the ground that is difficult or expensive to remove.
“There’s no cement; the racking stands on poles pounded into the ground and can come out easily,” Peterson explained. “This approach has provided comfort to our CSA landowners.”
SunCommon spokeswoman Emily McManamy estimated the cost of decommissioning one of the company’s 150-kilowatt arrays at about $10,000.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Walsh said if the 150-kilowatt arrays are relatively inexpensive to decommission, solar firms would not be burdened by a requirement to maintain closure funds.
“I don’t think that would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

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