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Brandon site eyed for state’s largest solar power farm

BRANDON/FLORENCE — A massive, 20-megawatt solar array is being proposed on more than 100 acres of land off Syndicate Road in Florence and Brandon, and if approved it would be the largest solar project in Vermont.
Representatives from Ranger Solar, based in Yarmouth, Maine, with offices in New York, appeared before the Brandon selectboard on Monday to give a project presentation and to answer questions. Those in attendance expressed a wide range of feelings, from enthusiastic to suspicious, with most town officials expressing support.
Details have been scarce since initial media reports of the project emerged last month. The Florence Solar Project is one of six large-scale solar arrays reportedly planned by Ranger around the state; other proposed locations are Ludlow, Highgate, Randolph Center, Irasburg and Sheldon.
Ranger Solar Development Manager Liz Peyton said that Ranger Solar focuses solely on larger-scale projects, and several factors drew the company to the Brandon area.
She cited the decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which took 600 megawatts off of the grid last year; the fact that wind energy has been difficult to permit in Vermont due to public backlash; and uncertainty about the Vermont Gas Addison-Rutland County pipeline, which is over budget and also the subject of public opposition.
“We feel this is disheartening, that there are not very many energy choices for this region,” Peyton said.
She added that the electrical infrastructure in the Brandon area is “really good,” and that the town’s proximity to Rutland is convenient, as the city has “a large need for electricity.”
Peyton said the project represents a $29 million capital investment from Ranger and would create 80 short-term construction jobs and two or three full-time operational jobs.
As for local incentives, Peyton said the project is expected to generate $100,000 annually in new tax revenue for the town of Brandon.
Peyton said that Ranger has begun the permitting process and the required studies, including an archaeological study. She said the required 45-day notice filing for public comment with the Public Service Board is planned for early November, with the PSB permitting application to be filed by the end of the year. Ranger hoped to begin construction in spring or early summer and have the project fully operational by December 2016, Peyton said.
She began her comments by acknowledging the increase in public concern over the siting of solar arrays in areas visible from roads and highways.
“We see these projects are really great opportunities for towns,” she said. “But we understand that these projects must be sited appropriately.”
The proliferation of solar projects in Vermont in recent years has been fueled by federal and state tax incentives, the latter a priority of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin during his three terms in office. The push from the Statehouse to encourage development of renewable energy projects in Vermont, particularly solar, over the last six years has resulted in almost 16,000 jobs and quadrupled the amount of solar energy generating projects in the state.
But it is those small, one- to 10-acre solar arrays dotting the Route 7 corridor between Brandon and Burlington that have many people saying enough is enough. Currently, the largest solar installation in the state is 2.2-megawatts on about 11 acres, although Green Mountain Power is proposing a 5MW project in Brandon on 40 acres and is eyeing two other projects with a similar scope elsewhere in Vermont. The six projects proposed by Ranger Solar would each cover more than 100 acres.
The Florence Solar Project would occupy 100 to 140 acres off Syndicate Road, an old Class IV dirt road that runs from the end of Carver Street in Brandon to West Creek Road on the Florence/Brandon border. Much of the road meanders along the Otter Creek and lies in low land between West Creek Road and Route 7.
Peyton said the area was chosen precisely for that reason.
“Nobody is going to drive by this project,” she said, adding that the access will likely be from the Florence side of the property, not the Brandon side.
Peyton characterized the environmental impact of the project as minimal.
“It’s the equivalent of driving a fencepost into the ground,” she said. “There are no concrete foundations.”
There is also a decommissioning component to the lease agreement with the landowner. Peyton said the lifespan of the array is estimated at 25-40 years, after which the bond required as part of the agreement would be used to deconstruct the array and return the land to its original use.
At this size, the Florence Solar Project is not entitled to any state taxpayer subsidies, said Ranger Vice President Paul Harris.
“We don’t qualify for the tax credit, so we’re not being driven by state incentives,” he said. “We’re driven by a robust solar economy fostered by solar growth.”
Recent media reports that the Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) has said its lines could not handle a 20-megawatt project are unfounded, Harris said.
“We have done a larger grid study,” he said. “We would upgrade the system to handle it.”
Harris added that Ranger does not anticipate having to perform upgrades to the system in the immediate area.
Brandon Selectman Ethan Swift expressed several points of concern about the project, including the visible proliferation of solar arrays in Vermont, and the scale of the one proposed.
“Do you think this is the right scale for Vermont,” he asked Peyton.
“I do,” she said.
“Do you live in Vermont?” Swift asked.
Peyton replied that she lives in Boston.
“When you think about Vermont,” Swift said, “do you think about solar farms? The nice, pastoral, bucolic image of Vermont? You drive up Route 7 and it’s one solar array after another. It’s crazy.”
Peyton repeated that Ranger is sensitive to the siting issue, which is why the firm chose the Syndicate Road site for the Florence Solar Project.
“We are taking viewshed and siting very seriously,” she said.
But a number of other board members expressed support for the project, including Selectman Seth Hopkins, who runs a tourist-driven biking and cross-country ski-touring business.
“Contrary to what’s been said, I think this is an excellent location for this project,” he said, adding that he directs guests down Syndicate Road on the bicycling tours.
Brandon Recreation Director and Economic Development Officer Bill Moore backed the project.
“I think this is fantastic, and good for Brandon,” he said. “I don’t know where the people who oppose this think we’re going to get our power from. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. We say ‘no’ to wind turbines, no to gas … I think this is a fantastic project in a fantastic location.”
Brandon Town Manager and former selectman Dave Atherton said the revenue is needed.
“One thing we’ve looked at is the shortcomings on revenue every year,” he said. “The business landscape has changed. This (project) makes sense because, unless you’re sitting on top of it, you’re not going to see it. I think it’s a great project, and as a taxpayer, I support it.”
Selectman Tracey Wyman and Board Chair Doug Bailey agreed.
“I think you picked a site that’s quite good,” Bailey said. “And, I agree with Bill. We have to get our power from somewhere.”
Brandon resident Jan Coolidge urged Brandon residents to hold off on forming opinions on the project either way until the process has developed a bit more.
“I hope everyone will keep an open mind,” she said. “Don’t fight it until we get all the facts.”

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