Solar array pitched for Starksboro landfill site
STARKSBORO — At its Tuesday night meeting, the Starksboro selectboard signed an option-to-lease agreement with Waterbury-based Green Lantern to develop an 150-kilowatt solar array on the town’s old landfill.
“It seems to me that it’s well positioned for a solar array,” said Starksboro selectboard Chair Susan Jefferies. “There aren’t a lot of development opportunities for that site. It’s a brownfield site.”
The town stopped using the landfill in 1991 and capped it in 1992. The proposed solar array could put a presently unusable piece of town land to work generating energy and revenue.
Green Lantern’s interest in the site also signals how changes in state policy and regulation are making shifts in how developers go about looking for potential properties.
“It’s a big risk we’re taking,” said Green Lantern’s Sam Carlson, describing the technical and engineering challenges of putting a solar array on a landfill.
“You can’t put a 500-kilowatt solar array in a green field any more unless the town selectboard, planning commission and regional planning commission designate those four acres as a preferred site for solar,” he added. “That’s all part of Act 174 and the towns doing their energy planning.”
Act 174, signed into law in June 2016, is designed to give towns a greater voice in where renewable energy projects are sited within their communities. Vermont’s renewable energy plan prioritizes siting solar development on so-called “brownfields” — former industrial sites or landfills that have real or perceived environmental contamination.
And the state’s latest net-metering rules, which went into effect this past July 1, provide a financial incentive for developers to use preferred sites — such as capped landfills, non-operative gravel pits and parking lots — rather than agricultural and open land.
The revised net metering rules help encourage developers “to look at places where we’d most like to see this infrastructure,” noted Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. “A capped landfill might not otherwise be used. So it’s a wise use of available resources.”
Last March Waterbury-based Green Lantern Group approached the Starksboro selectboard about developing a number of one-acre sites on town-owned land. Three different sites in particular have been under discussion: one at the town’s closed landfill, one on land next to Robinson Elementary School and one on a mined-out portion of the town’s gravel pit.
At present, only two of those sites are still under consideration. The mined-out gravel pit acreage was sold to Sentinel Farm’s Kerry Kurt in early September, in keeping with an agreement that had been discussed and approved at Starksboro’s 2016 town meeting. Jefferies noted, however, that the gravel pit might hold other potential sites for solar development.
“It’s a big gravel pit, and there’s still a lot of land left,” she said. Jefferies emphasized that the active part of the gravel pit is an important resource for the town and that any discussions about developing other mined-out portions would involve multiple stakeholders, including the Vermont Land Trust and town residents.
Still up for discussion is the site next to Robinson Elementary, Jefferies said. But first the town and the Robinson school district must work out a transfer of land ownership before Addison Northeast district consolidation takes effect on July 1, 2018. The five separate parcels that make up the land under and around Robinson Elementary are a mix of town- and school district-owned lands, she said.
“What the town would like to do is just swap the land that we have title to that the school is sitting on with the land that they have title to that the school isn’t using,” said Jefferies. “We think that would be a perfectly fine solution, but it will require an agreement to make the transfer.”
Discussions with the Robinson school district have been under way since late spring, according to selectboard minutes. The 17-acre parcel on which Green Lantern would like to site a one-acre solar array is already home to 25 solar panels. Six of these power all town-owned buildings; the other 19 power Robinson Elementary. Starksboro’s school and town buildings were among the first in Vermont to be solar-powered, observed veteran selectboard member Peter Marsh.
Green Lantern’s proposed plan for a solar array on the old landfill would put 660 solar panels on one acre of the approximately two-acre landfill. The landfill itself, though scenically backed by a wooded hill, provides a useful example of the whole brownfield idea. Invisible from Route 116, the old landfill sits behind the old town garage and other weathered outbuildings. Here and there are piles of rusted culverts and other cast off materials waiting for a better purpose. Directly alongside the landfill on the north is the town’s very active sand pit, with its heavy machinery and huge piles of grit. The Russell Farm sits to the south.
Green Lantern’s initial proposal is to lease the land for $3,000 a year for the first 10 years and for $3,500 for 10 years after that. According to Marsh, the selectboard member who’s kept the closest eye on the landfill, that $3,000 to $3,500 could initially help to cover Starksboro’s $8,000 a year expense for monitoring the landfill. That expense is scheduled to end in 2022, when Starksboro completes 15 years of state-mandated monitoring. (Although the landfill was capped in 1992, Starksboro didn’t begin monitoring it officially until 2007.)
The current phase of negotiations are focusing on how the proposed solar development might affect adjacent landowners David and Janet Russell. The Russells intend to put a planned residential development on seven lots below the old landfill site and have concerns about screening, said Jefferies. Last week Green Lantern submitted an initial screening plan, and the selectboard will carefully weigh how that plan looks to the Russells.
“We’re just trying to work with our neighbor rather than not,” she said. “I have every hope that we’re going to end up with a plan that works for everyone.”
For solar developers Green Lantern, putting a solar array on a landfill is uncharted territory.
“We won’t really know if it’s worthwhile until we’ve actually built one of these, and we can look at what were our actual construction costs,” Carlson said.
He said that landfills are especially tricky to work with (even more than gravel pits) and will be more expensive to develop than an open field because posts cannot be driven into the ground. So to build the array, a developer must first spread a layer of gravel on top of the capped landfill and then install concrete blocks. The blocks then hold the posts that hold the solar panels. Developers must also use low-pressure equipment and “be much more careful with equipment deliveries” so as not to disturb the landfill, Carlson said.
From his point of view as a developer, Carlson said the extra one cent per kilowatt hour that the state mandates for using a landfill or other preferred site is unlikely to cover the additional expense of developing the landfill.
“For a 150-kilowatt solar array generating 210,000 kilowatt hours per year, that means an extra $2,100/year over 10 years,” said Carlson, who noted that the penny incentive is only valid for 10 years.
“So that’s an extra $21,000, spread out over 10 years,” he continued. “With our geo-technical work adding $16,000 to a landfill job, and the concrete ballasted blocks adding another $22,000 additional cost compared to ground-driven posts, this siting adjustor ‘incentive’ doesn’t come close to covering the increased costs.”
Nevertheless, Green Lantern already has agreements with Cambridge, Newfane and Bethel/Royalton to build solar arrays on old landfills and is negotiating with both Starksboro and Underhill.
The Cambridge project will likely be the first to be built, as it’s the only one of Green Lantern’s landfill projects for which it has applied for a Certificate of Public Good. The other projects are several steps behind that in the development process.
Carlson said that solar arrays in Hartland and South Burlington, built by other companies, are already operating.
“We believe it’s worthwhile to do, and we’re solar developers, and we believe in creating renewable energy in the state of Vermont so we’re going for it,” he said. “Cambridge is going to be our first and hopefully we’ll learn a bunch from doing that so that the next one won’t cost so much.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]
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